Managing Messy Play & Messy Art for Kids

As you’ll in see some of our activities, like our glowing shaving cream or our  cloud dough, we don’t mind messy play.  I’d say 3/4 of our painting activities end in a paint covered child.  Recently I have received a number of emails from people asking how I manage all the mess and if I have any tips for beginning mess makers.

When it comes to messy play I find there are a few things that help me embrace the mess and manage the fallout.

Managing Messy Play & Messy Art for Kids


1. Be Clean Up Prepared

Before I even begin to set up a messy play or art for kids I think about it in terms of “worst mess scenario” (ie painting = paint all over bodies & clothing)  and plan cleaning methods accordingly.  I get everything out and ready beforehand so there’s no scrambling to get the sink stool out or searching for a towel while little hands drip with paint, shaving cream, or whatever other sensory play we did.   If we’re going to be getting extra messy or I see things heading that way I usually set out a change of clothes and get the bath ready.

2. Location, Location, Location

Ideally I like outside messy play but we get a lot of rain in the winter (well and in both the fall and spring) so it’s often that we do it inside. The bathtub makes a great container for messy play plus it’s a built in clean up machine! The majority of our activities are done at our art table, an easy to wipe off IKEA kids table with a (cheap) rug underneath.

Think about where you place your messy play;  Have you laid it out near your clean up area or is it across the room?  Are there obstructions (like toys or furniture) between the mess area and the clean up area?  For us our bathroom isn’t particularly convenient, from the playroom/art area you have to you have to cross the living room area to reach it, but I always make sure everything is cleaned up and there is nothing in the path from mess to bathroom.

messy play

3. Get Area & Kids Ready

If you have a Dollar Tree (or any dollar store I’d assume) nearby stop over and pick up some shower curtain liners.  Our Dollar Tree sells them in packs of 2 and they make amazing splat mats for protecting carpets and flooring! If it’s going to be a wet project I generally lay towels over the shower curtain liners.  I also use a cheap (dark) throw rug from Walmart underneath our main play table.

Large shallow containers work really well for sensory play bins, they can contain a lot of the mess but also are easy for toddlers and preschoolers to reach into.

managing messy play with toddlers

When it comes to getting the kids ready things like old clothing, aprons, and smocks are always a big help.  Personally I’m not a super huge fan of plastic smocks, I find them a bit too bulky for the younger kids, but I do own a few and we use them on occasion.  Here infants get stripped down and the toddlers get a paint shirt (aka an old adult size shirt) or smock sometimes but most of the time I lay out a change of clothes for afterwards.

Managing messy play

 3. Discuss Clean Up Process Before

Even though my girls know the drill we always do a quick run down of what we do when we are done with the messy play activity.  I generally ask the girls a few questions depending on the activity and items used.  Things like “where do the brushes go when you are done?” or “where to we wash up at when we are done?”

4. Do Only What YOU Can

Stay within YOUR comfort zone. If you’re not comfortable with shaving cream then don’t go there.  Just because your friend or favorite blog is OK with something, it doesn’t mean you have to be.  My dear friend Katie over at Happily Ever Mom has some great glitter activities that I love (like these adorable Peg Fairies) but I rarely break out the glitter because for some reason glitter is the one mess that I just can’t deal with (although glitter glue I can manage).

No glitter zone

5. Start Small

Take baby steps into messy play. You don’t have to start with the messiest activity you can find, start small and gradually increase. We get messy here but I’ve had years of experience with children and messes. When I first started my career with kids messy activities freaked me out, but over time I got more and more comfortable with mess.

6. Have Fun!

The most important thing I learned long ago is it’s not about me or the mess. If I spend the whole time worrying about paint getting on clothing, rice being dumped on the floor, or the playdough colors being mixed then I’m missing the most extraordinary part of the activity, all the discoveries that the kids are making.  I’m offering them these activities to learn and create with, not to stress myself out and micromanage them.

Clothes can be washed, carpets can be cleaned, and faces can be wiped but those experiences and learning opportunities can not be replaced.

Now are you ready for some messy play?

Rainbow Gelatin Sensory Tub from No Time for Flashcards

Bubbling Color Mixing from Where Imagination Grows

Body Paint Slip & Slide from Learn – Play – Imagine

Melting Insect Painting from Crayon Box Chronicles


What helps you manage the mess? 


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  1. says

    You are adorable – thanks for mentioning our peg fairies!! We LOVE glitter! :) But, you’re right, tackle what you feel comfortable with so that it’s fun for everyone involved! Great tips.

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