There are few things more delightful than a triumphant grin on a happily grubby child. When you think of educational toys, you probably picture electronics or perhaps puzzles, but don’t forget about finger paints, modeling clay and toys for dirt and sand!

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(Bigstock)

Children learn best by digging in and getting their hands (and faces and clothes and hair) dirty. Toddlers and preschoolers are not just bored by being expected to sit still and listen all of the time; they are also missing out on opportunities to develop critical skills. Not convinced? Read these reasons why parents and caregivers should encourage children to make a mess.

  1. Messy play helps children experience the world through touch. This kind of tactile play is not only deeply satisfying for most children, it also provides the kind of richly varied stimulation that helps young brains grow and develop. Beyond that, it also provides the practice children require to develop good hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.

Provide your child with ample opportunities to experience different textures, from cool, flowing water to rough sand and squishy dough. Finger-painting, gardening, cooking and sand play are all great ways to introduce different textures to your child.

  1. Messy play lets children learn about cause and effect by experiencing it for themselves. What happens when you add water to dirt? Or how does adding yellow paint to green paint change things? Lessons that are learned from firsthand experience tend to stick better than things learned from a lecture or by reading, particularly for younger children. Parents can help make the most of this experience by asking “what if” and “why do you think” questions while being mindful of letting their children take the lead in experimenting.
  2. Messy play lets children express themselves and direct their own play. It’s good for everyone, especially children, to have some time each day where they can cut loose and enjoy being in the moment. Children who are expected to be clean and tidy at all times have real restraints placed on their ability to play and experience the world around them. Wise parents and caregivers recognize that children can (and should!) get messy during the course of their days and plan their child’s wardrobe and hairstyle accordingly.

Do remember that encouraging messy play doesn’t mean that you have to abandon limits and allow your child to be destructive. You can cut down on your own frustration and help your child to learn responsibility by setting clear and consistent boundaries on where and when messy play is permissible and what behavior is unacceptable. Consider these ideas to help you incorporate messy play into your family life without having to live in a disaster zone.

  • Keep messy play such as painting, play doughs and cooking confined to rooms with easy to clean surfaces and easy access to water for washing hands.
  • Have a place for everything and everything in its place and make clean up a non-negotiable part of your everyday routine.
  • Do store particularly messy materials out of your children’s reach and make it clear that they must ask for these materials.
  • Many educational toy manufacturers sell items that make messy play a bit easier to contain. Look for trays, spill-proof containers, smocks and other sturdy items that can your home neat and tidy.

Children can learn to be responsible and how to respect boundaries as long as clear and consistent expectations are given and logical consequences are enforced when they forget. Messy play is more work for parents than “clean” fun but your efforts will be rewarded as your children grow up to be curious, creative, independent students and adults.