Have fun with messy play

boys take part in compost messy play

If you are looking to keep your little ones entertained over the summer holidays then look no further. We asked Sarah and Sue from our Early Years team to share their favourite messy play activities and tell us why these offer fun filled learning experiences for our children.

Compost Corner

Sue suggests buying a bag of compost because it is sterile and fine for crawling babies and toddlers.

  • For babies, put the compost in a small tray and they can explore the texture of the dry compost. For older children you can increase the size of the container.
  • Toddlers will like tools, funnels of different sizes (you can make these from water bottles) and a range of plastic containers.
  • Older children will enjoy making landscapes for toy tractors and diggers, dinosaurs, or Lego. Adding figures will increase opportunities for imaginative play.
  • Larger trays or garden pots provide the opportunity to make a farmyard or fairy garden where stones and twigs and boxes can be used to build a scene. Children can also add cress/grass seeds and grow a garden or crops. Let the children experiment with water to add swamps, ponds and rivers too.
  • Water adds a whole new dimension to investigate. Babies can make muddy finger trails. Toddlers will love mixing dry compost into mud, exploring how it can now make solid shapes, which can be destroyed and rebuilt. If you are feeling ambitious you could even use it as body paint.

The beauty of compost is it dries out and can be used again. If you leave it outside to dry, make sure you always cover with some cloth, to deter cats and wildlife.


Mud Pies

Sarah recommends making mud pies (unfortunately not the chocolate variety).

a boy makes a messy play mud pie

There are plenty of learning opportunities in making mud pies. For example,

  • Children find out how materials (soil and water) change when they are combined.
  • They build up physical strength as they stir different mixtures with assorted implements and carry different containers.
  • Pouring liquids into different containers also develops their hand/eye coordination.
  • Children experience how much the containers weigh and With adult support children begin to learn words such as heavy and light, full and empty.
  • Children also engage in creative play, for example, imagining that they are cooks or bakers.
  • Making mud pies helps children to develop their language and socialise with others, matching words to actions and negotiating different roles with their peers.


Bubble Play

Sue recommends bubble play as a collaborative activity that promotes personal and social development. It also stimulates a child’s fine and gross motor skills.

Adorable Little Girl Having Fun With Bubbles

Babies love to watch bubbles and it is good for toddlers to practise blowing bubbles – they also adore running after them. Older children will enjoy experimenting with different tools and this will support their technical understanding. You can try using sieves, pipe cleaners, a hoola hoop and or any round shapes in the toy box or kitchen drawer.

Make your own bubble mixture

All that is needed is one litre of water, 250ml of GOOD quality washing up liquid, and 2-4 tablespoons of glycerine (available in the baking aisle at most supermarkets – it makes the bubbles thicker and makes them last longer).


Have you ever tried to fit a child (or an adult) inside a giant bubble? You can find this, and more, on our Learn to Teach Early Years Pinterest board.


Shadow Painting

This counts as messy play, but the bonus is, no mess! All that is needed for this activity is a bucket of water and a selection of different sized paint brushes.

shadows created by parent and child

Stand on your patio so that the sun casts a shadow, and ask your little one to paint your shape on the ground. This is a collaborative opportunity because the ongoing dialogue promotes language, social and emotional development. It also offers the chance to discover some of the scientific properties of water.


Have fun with it!

Most importantly, messy play helps children enjoy their time with friends and family in the holidays.  We’d love to hear about your favourite messy play ideas too, so please feel free to leave us a comment.

About Early Years at CLL Warwick

Dr Sarah Cousins is Director of Early Years at the Centre for Lifelong Learning, University of Warwick and Sue Webster is a Senior Teaching Fellow within our Early Years team. Sue and Sarah both teach on our Foundation degree and BA (Hons) in Early Childhood.

You can keep up to date with their latest news on twitter @WarwickEY

You can find lots more Early Years activities on our Learn to Teach Early Years Pinterest board.

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