Make-up balloons

Draw faces on some balloons and let the kids loose with any old make-up you have lying around. Face paint should work too.

Given that I don’t wear make-up on a day to day basis (ok, or ever unless it’s a wedding or something – it’s too much like work), my kids have no idea what to do with it. But they had lots of fun smearing it over the balloons all the same.

It got a bit messy, but it wasn’t too hard to wipe up from the table and wash off the boys.

Mud construction and race track

We did this as a follow on activity a couple of days after trying out a bubbling mud kitchen. It was just as messy, but less structured.

I simply took the mud we’d already used and added a bunch of construction toys and cars for a child-led, messy, sensory play.20180412_1557481236869581.jpgElly went back to filling his pots and had a little drive of a car, but distracted by Zeph taking a toilet break, he pretty quickly decided that a bath was the more interesting option.

Zeph meanwhile spent a good long time filling his trucks, creating roads and tracks for the cars to drive on and simulating earthquakes and mudslides to trap them.

Bubbling mud kitchen

This is a gloriously messy, strictly outdoors activity that I saw a version of on The Keepsake Co….Except we don’t have an outdoors and I really wanted to try it. So I threw down a plastic sheet and did it on the verandah – we have a wash-down floor out there which helps with clean-up.

You need:
Mud (I used a big plant pot full)
Baking soda (I used around 175g… I have no idea exactly what different proportions would do without experimenting, but we produced some fair bubbling)
Vinegar in squeezy/spray bottles

Optional, ideas of things to decorate the baking with:
Paint powder or crushed chalk

This was premeditated, believe it or not, so I had Zeph and Elly crush chalk for it a couple of days beforehand: we put our chalk sticks in a ziploc bag and bashed it with a rolling pin and a mallet. That went down very well.

For the mud kitchen itself we got out various kitchen utensils, pots, pans and baking tins and started out with the mud mixed with baking soda.Once they’d prepared a few cakes and pancakes and waffles I got out the crushed chalk and some flowers for decorating with.Next they took the vinegar in squeezy bottles and made their creations bubble!Finally, once we filled, refilled and ran out of vinegar, they dumpedthe mud out and played with it a bit more.And then I dumped them both in the bath, locking the verandah door behind us and closing my eyes to the mess for a day (okay, 2) so that we could use it again for this mud construction and race track activity.


When your kids make up their own activity

I had no intention for the boys to shred the polystyrene strawberry box. But at some point while I was cooking dinner that was exactly what they started doing.

And they had SO MUCH FUN!!!

They pulled it and poked it with their fingers, they tried scissors and pencils on it, they jumped up and down on it and smooshed through the pieces.

And I let them.

Yes, it made some mess. No, it wasn’t much fun to clean up because the itty bitty bits kind of static to things and kind of float around so it’s not the easiest thing to sweep. And I was slightly worried that Elly might start trying to eat it (he didn’t). But I did have help with the clean up. And they learned and experienced.

And I cooked peacefully with not one interruption throughout.

Swamp small world

Up until now, I’ve done a lot of messy, sensory activities with my kids, many of which would at some point involve my oldest asking for his cars (if he didn’t already have them), and using them with any material to make little role plays and stories. What we haven’t done, and what I’ve recently been very excited to start exploring, is small world play.

So here was our first attempt: a small world swamp. The kids helped me make it first, which may or may not have been a good idea… I think they kind of had fun, but I had a particular idea of what I wanted to achieve before letting them loose on it so I was limiting their input and creativity in this stage.


We used food coloured cornflour gloop for the swamp (mix water and cornflour, super easy); borrowed some of the rabbit’s sawdust as swamp mulch; made some spiky swamp grass by sticking cocktail sticks into polystyrene balls; used green pompoms for swamp bushes; and added some lollipop sticks for logs (some real twigs and stones would have been great, but it’s been freezing and we’ve all been sick on and off… also, as much as my sons would like it, I don’t allow them to keep a stash of sticks and stones in the tiny apartment). Finally we added some insects, spiders and a crocodile.

The first thing both of them were interested in was the gloop. Elly started digging at it with a lollipop stick and Zeph started squishing bugs into it to make prints. Then, they pretty quickly moved on to sprinkling and then tipping the sawdust into the gloop. Zeph’s crocodile started eating sawdust, and after we tipped off the excess, they both had a go at making circle shaped prints with toilet roll middles.

At this point Elly retired for a long milk break. Meanwhile Zeph spent a long time tipping the messy tray this way and that to watch the mulchy gloop sliding around. Now, when I first said activity time and started setting things out, Zeph immediately went and got some cars and laid them out too. I think he was was a little bit confused when I wanted to put them aside for the beginning at least. The cars did get a look in at this point though. I thought it was the end of any kind of themed small world play, but actually they were only out for a couple of minutes before he set them aside again to concentrate on the crocodile and the wonderful swamp mixture he was concocting!

The crocodile went from gloop to sawdust and back again. It got buried, and stuck and sprinkled. It was force-fed sawdust. The spiky swamp grass got pulled apart and mixed into the gloop. Zeph asked for more water to make the gloop more liquid, and he asked for shapes that he used to scoop and tip. Until, finally, he had enough.

Did it stay a small world play activity all the way through? No. But was it lots of fun and a good activity? Yes!

Why messy, sensory, exploratory play

Now, I really don’t do a lot of letter or numeral or formal “educational” activities with my just-4 year old. Of course literacy and numeracy are important. And we do do lots of reading, storytelling and counting as well as exploring other basic math concepts such as shapes, categorizing, and graphs. But at just-4, as far as I am concerned, it is more important to be nurturing social, emotional and motor skills than worrying about whether my son perfectly knows all his letters (which he doesn’t, though he has a good idea of most and gets there with a little prompting) or can write his numbers (which he can’t).

I am honestly much more interested in learning through messy, sensory, exploratory play. In providing as many opportunities as possible for my kids to test their strength and their balance and their stamina. Opportunities to run and climb and crawl on the ground. To pick up sticks and stones and throw water around. To work together and cooperate with others. To grow logic and critical thinking, empathy and compassion.

And through play, through being kids, being human, taking slow days, they learn, and they develop the cognitive and physical abilities they need to sit and concentrate and make connections and ask questions in their formal education, when that happens.



We recently did a dig activity. I’ve seen this done by mixing damp sand and flour and leaving it to dry, but we just used soil from our (currently empty) flower pots.

My 19 month old quite likes dinosaurs, and although my 4 year old has never been terribly interested, he was having a minor phase. The older one also has an enduring enthusiasm for pirates and treasure, so I wanted to incorporate both ideas.

I buried a few dinosaurs and some silver coins made of shiny cardboard, used Shrek to make some footprints on the surface of the soil and left him in mid-discovery of a coin, just waiting for the kids to find and assist him. I also threw down a plastic sheet to catch spilt soil and make the clean up easier, and made sure to have an old towel to hand so I could wipe the kids down before rushing them through the house to the bath.

Once they noticed the box on the verandah they went straight for the invitation of nearby spoons and got stuck in.

Elly did a little bit of poking around, but was much more interested in the prospect of an impending bath. Zeph enjoyed it enough to tip it all back in and start over once he had finished digging all the soil out. He didn’t do a whole dig the second time round, preferring then to tip soil between the containers and climb into it.