Messy Play at Home: 8 Tips to Reduce the Mess and Stress!

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Whenever I post about our love for messy play, I’ll always be met with comments from people who can’t stand the mess. I get it – it took me a little while to become accustomed to the mess too… but the truth is, once I realised that anything can be washed or replaced, and embraced the mess and fun, messy play became a stress free experience! That being said, there are definitely tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way to take some of the mess out of messy play at home.

Messy Play Tray

Having a dedicated messy play tray is most definitely my top tip. My attitude to messy play changed completely when I purchased a tuff tray. It’s large, durable, and has raised sides, meaning any mess stays in the messy tray, as opposed to becoming spread all over your living room. Arthur, my toddler, learned this rule also – he knows he is allowed to make as much mess as he wants: as long as it stays inside the tray! It keeps your carpet clean and contains any small items from becoming lost.

Don’t have the storage space for a large tuff tray? Why not try this smaller square tray? Big enough for your toddler to sit in and play, but easier to store – its a win win.

Don’t want to buy anything new? Use a baking tray!

Top tip: if the weather is nice – pop your child outside for some outside learning and play! Less mess inside the house is always a win!

Messy Play Mat

The second piece of equipment I always recommend is some kind of messy play mat. We use a square of tablecloth – you know, the wipe clean, oilcloth type. I got ours cut off the roll at the John Lewis habadashery, but there’s also a great selection off tablecloths or by the metre fabric on Amazon. The great thing about this style of messy play mat is that it can also be used to combat baby led weaning mess by using it under a high chair!

Don’t want to buy anything new for your messy play at home? Chuck down a large bath sheet or blanket! Let it get as messy as you like and chuck it straight in the wash after – easy! Laying a blanket down is my go-to for activities that might get a little slippery and dangerous under foot – think jelly, whipped cream or shaving foam.

Another idea for a messy play mat, is to use a bedsheet! You could use a flat sheet, or even better yet: a fitted sheet! Prop a toy or book in each corner and encourage the corners up around them to create sides to keep the mess in. When you’re done – bundle it all up, dump it out of the way, and then come back and tidy it up later when you have the time! It worked perfectly for my autumnal messy play set up.

messy play at home bedsheet messy play at home in a bedsheet

Invest in some washable non toxic paints for toddlers!

Messy play at home becomes a LOT less stressful when you know that everything you’re using will wash out. I cannot recommend washable paints enough – our favourite are the Crayola washable paints. Washable paints are a little more pricey than your standard ready mix paint, but I’m yet to find a surface or fabric it won’t wash out of, so in my eyes it is definitely worth the extra little expense.

You can also get washable pens and washable paint sticks! We’re currently using paint sticks from The Works which aren’t technically washable, but seem to be doing the trick, but I’ve heard great things about these Little Brian Paint Sticks too! If it’s pens you’re after, the Crayola washable pens have come highly recommended to me, too.

You might also like these crafting activities and home play for two year olds!

Set up everything you need beforehand 

Sometimes, messy play can have quite a lot of equipment. If you’re painting, you’ll need paint, paint brushes, a mixing tray or bowl, some paper or card, and don’t forget the messy play mat or tray we’ve already spoken about. If you’re doing some kind of water play, you’ll need bowls, cups, spoons and syringes. Sometimes, setting up all that equipment with a baby or toddler running around your ankles can feel a little overwhelming – especially when the equipment is scattered amongst different storage locations throughout your house.

Take 5 to 10 minutes the night before your messy play at home to think about exactly what activity you’d like to do, what equipment you’ll need, and go and grab it all! I pile it up and leave it on the breakfast bar ready for the next day – meaning when the time comes to get stuck in to the messy play, I’ve already got everything ready where I need it! If I’m doing a particularly intricate messy play, like a full farm or ocean themed tuff tray, I’ll completely set it up on the floor ready for my son to enjoy as soon as he comes downstairs. I really find that setting up your messy play at home beforehand really helps avoid the last minute stress of preparing it!

messy play at home farm tray messy play at home, elephant sensory tray

Put any distractions away

I often hear stories from parents where their children have completely ignored the messy play and gone for their favourite trucks instead or thrown an electronic toy or book into their water play (oops!). This can cause a lot of stress, or even put you off of trying messy play at home again in the future.

My top tip to avoid this – remove the distractions completely! It’s so important to remember that young children have little to no control over their impulses. If they see their favourite toy and they have an impulse telling them to go over and play with it, or throw it into the water, they will! Spend a minute or two before you get stuck in to your messy play at home by tidying away the toys that are out, particularly putting any toys you wouldn’t want to get ruined or aren’t safe to be combined with the messy play, out of sight. You’ll most probably find your child is a lot less distracted and can focus on the messy play more if they are not in a messy room full of all their favourite distractions!

Keep towels and wipes nearby!

This one seems obvious, but even I myself have often sat down and only realised I have no wipes to hand after Arthur has shoved a finger covered in paint in his eye! Whilst I try not to distract him by wiping him as he’s playing, it’s handy to have wipes and towels nearby for as soon as they’re done. If they get REALLY messy, you can bundle them up in a big towel and plop them straight in the bath.

messy play at home farm set up Toddler painting at home

Talking of baths… why not just do your messy play in the bath?

No, seriously… just let them get on with it in the bath! Particularly useful for any kind of water or ice messy play, it helps contain the mess and makes tidying up a LOT easier. Why not dry DIY edible finger paints with yoghurt and food colouring, and let them ‘paint’ the sides of the bath? Just make sure to put down your non slip bath mat as things will get slippery!

Read next: 100 days of lockdown learning: the best bits!

Get involved and let your hair down!

Not literally… keep your hair up tight in that mum bun of yours because things are gonna get messsyyyyy! In all seriousness, try and relax and join in! Have fun with your child and let them take the lead. If they want to paint their feet, let them! Watch how happy it makes them to feel the weird, new sensation on their toes. Be silly. Smile. Laugh. Play. You don’t get these years back – as much as I wish we did – so try to enjoy it whilst you can. Remember: everything can be washed, everything can be tidied, everything can be replaced. Have fun, and deal with the tidying up after.

Don’t forget that you can shop all of our recommendations on our Amazon storefront – I have a whole list just for arts and crafts!

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