The Role Of Messy Play

Getting messy helps us process confused thoughts and feelings

There is a connection between psychological and physical ‘mess.’  When our thoughts and feelings are confused or chaotic, this can spill over into our physical lives.  The opportunity to express these thoughts and feelings through the use of physical materials helps us to make sense of the chaos and gives us the chance to reorder things within our minds.

Messy play with paints

Carl Jung said that ‘the hands instinctively know how to solve something which our minds cannot do’ and as adults, we often find that activities such as gardening or decorating can bring a sense of calm and order to our minds.

The Role of Messy play in Therapy sessions

When children’s lives are messy and chaotic they may seek to play in a messy way, using sand, clay, water and paint. Getting in touch with the different senses is an important aspect of messy play and these include the texture, smell and even the squelchy sounds it might produce.  Children may act disgusted and say “Yuck!” but will usually carry on with and enjoy the activity.

As a play therapist I see children who struggle to contain their feelings about people and events in their lives. Children can be confused about parental separation or divorce, about the death of a loved one, or moving house or schools.

Providing boundaries

It is important to set boundaries within therapy so that the child feels secure, and one of the ways we can do that is to provide a large jar and allow them to pour in water, sand and glitter, and make as much mess as they want within the boundaries of that space. In this way we provide security by keeping the mess contained. A warm and friendly relationship with their therapist gives children the permission to express themselves and I find that messy play is a great medium for children to express themselves when they struggle to do this verbally.

Learning to control feelings

Once children have learnt how to contain their messy feelings within their therapy sessions, the mediums that they choose to express themselves with will change. In turn their play will become more structured and contained and hopefully they will learn how to express, understand and control their emotions. What were overwhelming feelings will now start to become more manageable for them.

Messy play at home

Mess is also an important part of the developmental process. If children miss out on this in their early years they may need to return to it later in life.  Try to incorporate messy play at home, letting your child use their hands to play with paint, sand, water or modelling clay.  They can help you make homemade play dough using the recipe below and choosing their own colours.

Homemade Play Dough Recipe


3 cups flour
1.5 cups salt
6 teaspoons cream of tartar
3 tablespoons oil
3 cups water
Colouring as required


Mix ingredients together and stir play dough continuously over a low heat until mixture leaves the sides of the pan.

Lizz Summers

Voice & Presentation Skills Coach