My previous post made me realize just how much I know about messy play for toddlers. It’s really time consuming to stop random people on the street and share my wisdom, only to find out that they don’t even have kids, and I should “Go home and put on pants”. Whatever, I’ll just share my knowledge with you lovely minions who appreciate my pearls of wisdom.
Messy play is one of my favorite things for so many reasons:
- It absorbs my toddler, Nacho, in a way few things can. That sentence makes it sounds like the Blob is ingesting him, but you get what I mean.
- Messy play is even entertaining for young babies. I know when Nacho was small, I was definitely at a loss for things to do with him. You can only coo at a wiggling burrito so much!
- It’s CHEAP. Having a kid is expensive, especially when yours eats like a linebacker after the big championship game (the Wonderbowl? The Supershow? You know, that sports thing that happens too often for some reason). The most basic form of messy play is a mud pit, which is free! The other recipes I use are generally pretty cheap, which is always great.
There are lots of variations of messy play, and honestly, just a quick browse on pinterest will overwhelm you with options. Well, I have sorted through tons of those links, and picked out my favorites. I look for recipes that are cheap, easy to clean up, and allergen free (no wheat for my poor guy). Several of these are also taste safe for younger ones.
- Slime – You will need a fiber supplement with Psyllium as the active ingredient, food coloring, water, and a microwave safe bowl. I love this recipe because you only use 1 tablespoon of the fiber stuff and 1 cup of water. Whisk this together with a little food coloring, then microwave for 5 minutes. Here is the link to the original post I used that has lots of Q&A if you need more details.
- Oobleck – Mix 1 cup water, 2 cups cornstarch, and some food coloring. I like to make one big white batch, then separate it into small containers to add color. I usually don’t measure anything, and just kind of mix it around until I get a good consistency. Oobleck can be reused if you spread it thin, and let it dry thoroughly. Just add water again and remix it. I usually reuse it within a couple days, and just once. There are tons of variations on this basic recipe all over the magical internets, but I stick to the basic one.
- Tub Paint – You can use shaving cream mixed with a tiny bit of food coloring, or this recipe (this is a tiny batch): 1 tbsp constarch, a couple squirts dish soap, and a tiny bit of food coloring. As with the oobleck, I make a big batch of white, then separate it to add colors. With the soap one, the tub turns into a Giganto-bubble bath after, which entertains Nacho for another good stretch of time.
- Finger paint – When my son was younger, I made his from scratch so they would be taste safe. I used this recipe, and it worked great! We still have Nacho’s original artwork, and it looks great, 2 years later. Now, I tend to buy the store-bought ones when they’re on sale. I should probably get back to making them, though…
- Play dough – Since Nacho is allergic to wheat, and playtime shouldn’t lead to him covered in hives, I used rice flour instead of regular flour. That’s not as cheap as most recipes though, so I would use regular flour if you can. I have totally lost the original recipe I used, but there are infinite variations online. If you don’t have time to cook it, you can use cornstarch and hair conditioner, mixed with a bit of food coloring.
- Play foam – this is a huge hit in our house, and one we usually keep in the tub. I use a couple squirts of dish soap, a small drop of food coloring, and about 1/4 cup of water. You do need a mixer of some kind for this. I use my hand mixer with whisk attachment and it whips the mixture up into foam in no time. I actually keep my hand mixer in the bathroom now.
- Foam dough – This is cornstarch mixed with shaving cream. When I made it, it was somewhat brittle, but some kids will probably enjoy it. I’ll probably try it again with Nacho in the future.
- Mud – regular old mud is one of Nacho’s favorite things. I just make sure to hose him off outside before we head in for his bath.
- Play sand – Sand is really cheap at Home Depot, and stores like that. It is just insanely heavy. Again, a huge hit! We bought one bag last year, for I think $5, and his sand table (which I got for free!) is still pretty full. If you store it outside, put a cover over it when it’s not being used. We just store our play pool upside down on top as a giant lid!
- Jello – Yes, just regular old Jell-o. I buy the store brand, so it’s less than $0.50 per batch. Just follow the package instructions! Easy peasy. I usually make it after he goes to bed, so it’s ready the next day for play time.
- Play snow – This is literally baking soda mixed with water, and that’s all. I kind of just mix amounts until I have a consistency I like. (Man, this is a professional blog, will you look at this? Don’t get too jelly of my amazing, super-helpful writing.) One thing about play snow, you will see recipes all over that call for conditioner or other random ingredients, but seriously, all you need is baking soda and water. You can also play with this in the tub and dump vinegar on it to make crazy amounts of foam!
- Bean tray – Beans are so much fun for kids to play with, but man, they can get everywhere. I use pinto beans because they’re the cheapest of all the beans, and they’re large enough to be easy to find. No lentils for this activity! I have a big, cheap catering pan I store the beans in with a few scoops, so it’s all ready to go when I need a distraction.
- Water – I’m including this because you HAVE to take precautions with water. Not just safety, but holy potato can kids make a mess with it. We played mixing colored water in the tub, and I’m so glad I didn’t try it elsewhere. I also stop up the sink and fill it a little so Nacho can play Pond. Give him a few animals (or toys that desperately need a bath!), and he’s entertained for 20 minutes. Long enough for me to shower (in eyesight of him), or put laundry away.
- Bubbles – Nacho is obsessed with bubbles, whether in the bath or blown, so when I bring them out, we go through a million of them. If we use them indoors, I put towels down to prevent the floor getting slippery. We made bubble snakes outside, which was great until the dog began eating them. Okay, that was funny too, but then he got an upset stomach, so don’t let your dog eat bubbles. It’s not pretty. I used one of Nacho’s socks on the bubble maker instead of the wash cloth in the tutorial, and it worked great.
- Colored ice cubes – Just make colored water, and dump it into ice cube trays. You can use yogurt cups, or other containers to get weird shapes, but make sure the container is freezer safe. There’s a blue stain in my freezer for totally unrelated reasons. Totally. I usually let these warm up a little before handing them off to Nacho so I don’t have to worry about them sticking to his skin or tongue. I have a Batman ice cube tray (YOU CAN’T HAVE IT), and he loves to fit the bats back into the tray.
I wrote about how to reduce the clean up work the other day, so here’s the link if you missed it.
- I buy my food coloring on Amazon, and it’s far cheaper than the grocery store. If I find something even cheaper than that, I will update you all.
- To extend a kiddo’s interest in a particular mess, add fun things to it gradually. For example, if Nacho has play dough, he’ll start to lose interest after 20 or 30 minutes. I just hand him something additional to go with it, like dry pasta, and that adds a new level of interest. Googly eyes make an appearance later, then cookie cutters, etc.
- Save and wash yogurt cups for scooping, or to hold multiple colors of paints/slime/various goops.
- Look around at what you have available, and utilize your resources. Kids will find a way to play with almost anything. Do you have dozens of wine corks around for no particular reason? Not because you’re a parent, surely. Well let the kiddo play with them, and now you’re being resourceful!
- Don’t have a plan for HOW the kid will play with stuff. I mean, other than “Don’t throw it at the cat”. Just let them do whatever comes to mind rather than demonstrating how they “should” play with whatever it is. If they seem a little lost or hesitant, by all means get down there and play around, but otherwise let them at it.
- With my toddler, I don’t ask if he wants to play with something. That’s get a guaranteed “NO”. I just set stuff up and show it to him, then he digs in.
- Start buying industrial shipments of cornstarch. Why does it only come in tiny boxes at the store???
- I save random plastic containers and lids to use with all of these. Coffee can lids make great pretend plates, little segmented trays are great for paints or pouring activities. Ice cube trays are wonderfully versatile. Of course, if your kid is young enough to worry about choking on things, be very careful what you hand them.
- Random items to extend play: straws or chop sticks (for a more eco-friendly version), googly eyes, dried pasta, various plastic containers and trays, milk tops, large beads or buttons, toy dinosaurs, army men, bugs, animals, other figures that are washable, balls, cars (that are easy to clean), Mardi Gras beads, nature materials like pine cones, shells, sticks, acorns, etc, cutlery, like butter knives or spoons, baking pans, like muffin tins or bundt cake pans, cookie cutters, random craft supplies like gems or feathers, and weird kitchen tools, like a garlic press, potato masher, rolling pin, those odd gadgets that accumulate and you forget what they do.
- Above all, have fun! There’s a ton of info here, so just pick and choose a couple things to test out if this is new ground. If you’ve been doing messy play with the kiddos for awhile, hopefully there are some useful tips in here, and maybe you have some of your own! I would love to learn something new, so drop me a comment with your sage advice.
Wow, that is a lot of text. My brain feels so light and empty now! I mean, it usually feels that way until I have some coffee. And then also after I have coffee. And most of the time. You can see why I prefer play things that are simple to set up and clean up!
My toddler and I love messy play, but I want to minimize clean up as much as possible. The less time I spend mopping (yes, let’s all pretend I mop), the more time we can play!
We love playing with slime, play dough, oobleck, play snow, paints, and plain old mud.
- Keep it contained.Put the kiddo in a bathtub indoors, or a kiddie pool outside. Or just be outside where a mess won’t matter.
- Use washable container for the mess. I use random plastic containers that are dishwasher safe, like my deviled egg carrier I have never once used. I empty out our play material as much as possible, then toss it into the dishwasher. Tupperware lids, cookie sheets, and large reusable containers are all helpful. Even catering dishes.
- Put something on the floor to catch the mess, preferably something machine washable. I use really old sheets, or cheap shower curtain liners to catch the mess. For something like oobleck, I let it dry on the sheet, then shake it out into the trash before throwing it in the wash. Shower curtain liners are machine washable too! I use one for finger painting, then throw it in the wash on gentle with 2-3 towels. This is a great way to reuse a shower curtain liner that isn’t gross, but you’re replacing for aesthetic reasons, or because those stupid little holes at the top keep tearing for no reason and now it won’t stay up!
A few other tips for messy play:
1. If you have pets, try to use materials that are safe for them to eat. I doubt it’s a great idea for a dog to have a cornstarch feast, but at least you don’t have to worry if they snack on a bit.
2. If I ask my toddler if he wants to play with slime or something, he invariably says no, because that’s a toddler’s favorite word. I’ve had way more success laying out an activity, then just letting him dig in.
3. To extend play, bring out additional play items as the kiddo’s interest fades. For example, if you’ve got plain old play dough out, and your kid starts to wander off, lay some plastic straws or chopsticks down with it. After another 20 minutes or so, some zoo animals make an appearance, etc. Nacho and I played with play dough for 2 hours yesterday, using this method.
4. Some messy items can be reused! If you let oobleck dry out, you can just add water again next time you need to use it (let it dry thoroughly to avoid mold). I make homemade play dough and store it in the fridge for months at a time. Homemade gak can last a couple days in the fridge as well. Mud is eternal, and there’s an endless supply right off my back porch.
Messy play is so entertaining for kids, and my son has been a fan since we introduced it. There are so many variations, and recipes available, you can be creative and use what you have available. This is also some of the cheapest entertainment available, so you know that makes me happy!
My son tends to not want to color much himself. It got better when we moved from crayons to markers, but he still mostly wants to direct me or Hubby, and tell us what to draw. I don’t know if he gets frustrated, or is unhappy with his results, but we keep trying to get him more involved.
Around Christmas I was digging through stuff (endless amounts of stuff everywhere, always), and I found an old bingo stamp! I figured I’d see if he liked it. I started with a drawing of a Christmas tree for him to decorate, and that was a hit. Then I drew a house, which was okay, then he requested a dinosaur. That was super popular as well. Keep in mind, I think these things are permanent, so take mess precautions, and DO NOT leave those things where a kid can reach.
I did these around Christmas, but since it’s now summer time, I figured I’d make some basic free printables for anyone who wants them. If you’re reading this around winter, I have some done for that also. These are super basic, just to give you a jumping off point. The dots one can be used for pompom sorting as well. Feel free to give your kid blank paper, poster board, wrapping paper, or cardboard to draw on. My son has a giant box he uses as a fort, and we let him color the inside of that as well.
I have a love/hate relationship with Pinterest, the same way most people do. I love getting ideas for new activities with my kid, but some of those blog posts have to be built on a house of LIES. There is no way your 18 month old built a Christmas tree out of playdough and wrapped garlands around it like that, Smothery Mothering!! THERE’S NO WAY. So take Pinterest with an enormous grain of artisan, organic, hand-harvested, pink Himalayan sea salt. OK, rant over. (maybe).
I saw this idea for sorting Pompoms by color as an activity for 2 year olds. Well, I just happen to have one of those at my house, so I thought, why not entertain him? I used construction paper, and plastic cups I had laying around as the basis for this project. Look at all the random junk you’ve accumulated since having a child (I mean, who has time to take out the recycling any more?!?!) and find a few containers that are roughly the same size. You’ll also need scissors, tape, and a pencil. You could probably paint the bottoms of the containers instead of using construction paper if you’d like. I’m not your boss. (But if I am, GET BACK TO WORK, GAYLE!)
Trace the bottom of the container onto the paper. I cut one out, and tested it in the cup until it fit, then used that as my template for the others.
Tape the circles into the bottom.
Boom! Ready to play! This only took me 10 minutes or so.
I was making this in the bathroom while my son was in the tub. You guys got to see my counters while they were clean! Oh, I mean, they’re always clean. I’m like, Martha Stewart mixed with June Cleaver, but super hot and witty like Tina Fey, all in one.
For younger kids, or when just starting to learn colors,use fewer containers and colors. I would also start with colors that are distinctly different from each other, like red and green, or yellow and blue. Orange and red can be a pain to differentiate, so start out simply.
“Why are there no pictures of this mystery toddler playing with this toy his mother so lovingly crafted?” you’re asking. Well, because he immediately wanted to play with the circles in the bottoms of the cups, and cried until I pulled them all out for him. Then he shoved each one into my dresser through a tiny gap in the drawer. Maybe I should have just made that the game? Now I have a new idea…
But you can see why I have a vendetta against Pinterest. It would have been so easy for me to snap a picture of the back of baby Nacho’s head “playing” with this toy while he desperately tried to pull the circles out of the bottom. So don’t feel bad if you make something, and it doesn’t go as planned. All kids are different, and all kids are weird. I try to pay attention and participate in the way he plays with something, rather than trying to guide how he’s “supposed” to play with something. Above all, have fun!
As I said in a recent post, we’re planning to travel with my 2 year old for the holidays! I know, it’s completely nuts, but I’m preparing as best I can. So here we have one of my solutions: DIY toddler sewing projects! You will need markers, some kind of tough card stock (I reused old manila folders), a hole punch, and shoes laces or ribbon.
I drew some simple pictures on the manila folder with sharpies, and colored them in.
The I cut them out and punched holes around the edge:
It’s surprisingly simple. If you need something more durable you can color on and cut out plastic from milk jugs, or laundry detergent. Since we’re traveling for Christmas, I made a Christmas tree complete with tinsel:
It’s so cute I amaze myself sometimes! Now we’ll see if Nacho enjoys them at all. I hope so, because I made four total.
We are planning to travel for Christmas with my two year old because A) I’m insane, and B) Someone gifted me lots of Austin Beerworks beer, so I can tolerate more aggravation (Note: I do NOT mean drinking and driving. That’s an absolutely terrible idea. Just drink at home, so you can play video games at the same time!).
Since we’re traveling with a toddler, I am planning as many activities as possible that are lightweight, easy to carry, pack, and play with, and are cheap, so I don’t have to freak out if bits get left behind. To that end, I made some simple, free winter printables that you guys are welcome to. You can use these as coloring pages or just decorate with cheap stickers!
You’ve got your basic Christmas tree, and a snowman and house to decorate, since not everyone celebrates Christmas. The house can be made into a gingerbread house, or a monster house, whatever the kiddo’s tiny heart desires. And you can print dozens of them. Dozens!!!
Everyone be safe during this insane travel and shopping time. Remember that you don’t have to shop if you don’t want to! Whatever you’re up to, have fun and be safe!
Love, That Clever Chick
Rainy days, blah blah, kids trapped in the house, yadda yadda, mom’s out of booze, we need an activity. My son can’t get enough of playing with balls, so I thought I’d look at the resources I had on hand to craft an activity for him.
What does every crafty mom having laying around? Cardboard tubes! Whether from paper towels or toilet paper, we know there MUST be a use for them, and we hoard them like canned goods in a bomb shelter. I have these things falling out of cabinets when I attempt to put dishes away, so I figured it was about time to use a few up.
You will need: paper towel tubes, a cardboard box, strong tape, scissors, balls.
I had this Costco yogurt box laying around, and it is the perfect size for this. You can use something bigger or smaller, it’s up to you. I’m going to show you the basics of how I made mine, then you can adjust according to the materials you have on hand.
I started out laying the cardboard tubes in the box to measure how many I would need. I cut the tops off, long ways, just using scissors. I didn’t cut them directly in half, but if you have a shortage of paper towel tubes (Ha! Yeah, right) then you can do that and use each half.
I used pieces of toilet paper roll to add extra support to the paper towel tubes, with double stick tape. Important note: make sure the balls you’re going to use for this will fit through with those supports on there. Mine did not. I used whiffle golf balls and had to remove my beautiful supports.
I used big loops of masking tape to stick the tubes into the box. You can also use duct tape, or whatever you have laying around that’s fairly tacky. Again, test this thing before you hand it to your toddler so you don’t have to frantically rip pieces off while they run off to play with power outlets.
Success! He played with it!
Disclaimer: it does not work with kangaroos. I apologize for this huge oversight.
Once your kid can start feeding him or herself, there are a million pre-packaged, expensive foods you could buy. If you’re awesome and frugal like me you think “Surely, there have to be convenience foods I can feed this kid that don’t cost as much as lobster, ounce for ounce”. You’d be right! I have a few things I keep on hand or pre-make so I can hand food to Baby Nacho immediately, without spending a bunch of time cooking and whatnot.
1) Canned meats – Canned chicken is soft and chewable. It apparently tastes great, because my son goes crazy for it. It’s like those baby hot dogs, but cheaper, and less odorous. Canned salmon is great too. You can mix it in with veggies, a mashed avocado, olive oil, or mayo (if your kid isn’t allergic to eggs, which mine is).
2) Canned Fruit – mandarin oranges are a HUGE hit with my munchkin. Canned mangoes are a little mushy for self-feeding, but they’re fine to blend into other foods.
3) Cottage cheese – this and yogurt are wildly popular in my house. Once your kiddo can chew stuff, this is so easy to just pop open and shove in their tiny mouths.
4) Cereal – obviously a childhood staple. We have a hard time with this one, because Nacho has dozens of food allergies, so we tend to avoid normal boxed cereal. When you’re just starting out with self-feeding, those little baby puffs that dissolve are indispensable. I have yet to find a cheaper substitute. Now that mine can chew, he gets cornflakes occasionally.
5) Oatmeal – stores in the pantry forever. Just get the big canister and you can use it in overnight oats, or mix it with fruit or veggies for added fiber. You can even pre-cook some and store it in the freezer for later.
6) Puffs – Baby puffs are awesome, as I said, but pricey! Once your little one can actually crunch some snacks, and doesn’t need the dissolving kind, Pirate’s Booty is a cheaper substitute. It’s still not cheap, but my son freaking loves it (as do I). It comes in several flavors, but your kid probably needs a few teeth for this one to be feasible.
7) Cheese – small chunks of cheese are easy. You can even leave them out to warm up a bit to make it even softer.
8) Fresh fruit – really ripe bananas, peeled pears, peaches, and kiwis are great. Really any fruit that is pretty soft.
9) Bread, pasta, etc – Unfortunately, with my kiddo’s allergies, most carbs are off the table, literally. Bread, dried pasta, and tortillas can all be kept in the pantry, ready to be torn into little pieces for little hands. We do use corn tortillas, and some rice pasta.
10) Canned beans – these are great to keep on hand to add some fiber and variety to baby’s diet. Don’t go overboard unless you want to fog your house with toxic baby farts.
11) Food pouches – these are more expensive than regular baby food, usually, but I found them in another part of the store for about half the price! On the fruit aisle with the applesauce instead of getting them in the baby aisle. Also, applesauce is cheaper than buying apples and blending them up, FYI. Food pouches are so great for traveling. I keep a couple in the diaper bag as emergency back up food in case we’re out longer than I expect, or I fail to bring adequate supplies. We only use these for running around town and such, not for daily eating; they’re still too pricey for that.
12) Food dots – this came up on my facebook, so I don’t have an original blog post to give credit to (and I’m not sure there is one). If anyone has a link, please let me know so I can give credit. I haven’t tried this yet, but you can bet I’m going to!
If you have an idea for a self-feeding food, but aren’t sure, test it by mushing it against the roof of your mouth with your tongue. This is a great test for feeding your kiddo from your plate (which is all they will ever want). As always, if you’re cooking for yourself, you can make extra for the bambino, and just cook it a little longer, until you reach that easy-to-mush state. For this post I just wanted to focus on what you can keep on hand for those “oh-no-the-kid-is-hungry-right-this-second-but-I-just-walked-in-the-door-and-haven’t-even-set-my-stuff-down-where-are-my-keys-am-I-losing-my-mind-I-swear-I-just-had-them-great-now-the-dog-is-barking-too-what-is-happening-to-my-life” moments.