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What is Messy Art?

Jan 17, 2019    |   Art & MusicOutdoor & Sensory Play

Allowing children to get messy with their art materials is an important part of play.

According to How We Learn, messy art has many benefits for early learners. It “is important for their sensory development and their language development. It is important for their creativity, imaginations, and problem solving too.”

Messy art encourages children to get their hands messy and dirty in squishy and gooey materials. Just as it sounds, messy art is…messy! It allows an opportunity to splatter, smear, and explore in any way the children desire. With messy art, there is no outcome– just creative expression and exploration.

While engaging in a messy art project means not worrying about being tidy, artist smocks can be a good idea to protect children’s clothes.

Messy Art Ideas

Marble Art

Photo from the Artful Parent

Did you know that you could make a beautiful, colorful, marbled art piece using simple kitchen ingredients? Using vegetable oil and food coloring, Jean Van’t Hul of the Artful Parent shared her innovative messy art idea, Marbling with Oil, to create vibrate art pieces with children. Dipping hands into a bowl of oily, colorful water will be messy, but it will also allow for a great sensory experience and fun opportunity for children to enjoy the process of creating!

Painting with Feet

Photo from HomeGrown Friends

Meredith Magee Donnelley, author of Open Hearts, Open Minds and owner of Homegrown Studio, shared her fantastic idea for a messy art experience that can be enjoyed by children of all ages. Painting with Feet is a unique sensory opportunity for children experience the squishy, ooey feeling of tempera paint between their toes! She set up this project outside, using a long roll of butcher paper. Children walked across the paper in bare feet, creating a colorful end result.

This activity can be enjoyed by children of all ages, but will require close adult supervision as the paint can get slippery! When setting up this project, it is important to ensure that it is in a safe place, in case children fall.

Fly Swatter Mural Art for Toddlers

Photo from Playground Parkbench

In another outdoor messy art opportunity, Meghan of Playground Parkbench, set up an inviting experience for her toddler using chalk paint and fly swatters! Using a fly swatter creates a fun, unique, splattered pattern and using chalk paint allows children to move from the paper to the sidewalk without any concerns about clean-up. This opportunity is especially great for toddlers who tend to have a curiosity about hitting and banging materials as they explore them. This mural is quick to set up, requires only a few supplies, and can be done in a group or individually!

Unusual Canvases

In her book, Tinkerlab: 55 Experiments that Encourage Tinkering, Curiosity and Creative Thinking, Rachelle Doorley shares the unlimited possibilities of items that can be used for creating art. In an excerpt from her book entitled, “Yes, You Can Paint on That,” she describes how rocks, boxes, seashells, and sticks can all be used as canvases for creativity. She states, “When children see that anything can be a surface for making art, they’re empowered to find the extraordinary in the ordinary” (p. 67).

For more information about Rachelle Doorley’s book, click here!

Setting Up the Experience

Start this exploration by offering children a found and natural materials to paint by squeezing small amounts of paint on the objects and allowing children to paint. Rachelle Doorley recommends a paper plate or cereal box. For messy art experience, tempera and watercolor paints tend to be best for childhood because they are washable. Acrylic, while it sticks to everything, is not washable and will stain clothes.

She mentions the importance of following up the experience with conversation, asking questions such as “What was it like to paint on this object? How was it different from painting on paper? Which do you prefer? What other objects could we paint on?”


If you try any of these ideas, we’d love to hear how they went! We encourage you to join our Facebook page to share your experience with us and others who work in ECE in San Mateo County!

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