Does the thought of messy play make you cringe? It’s understandable, but you may want to reconsider. Messy play has been shown to have a variety of benefits for preschoolers, from stimulating creativity to improving coordination skills. Here are 10 fun open ended play ideas for preschoolers that will allow your child to get their hands dirty and learn in the process. Let’s go!

open ended play Ideas for Preschoolers - child with green paint covering their hands making hand prints on white paper
Painting with hands

What is open ended play for preschoolers?

Open ended play (unstructured play) is simply playing without any grown up intervention. That’s it. The child or children decide what they’re going to do, come up with the rules, and figure out how to solve any problems that come up along the way. There is no expected result.

These are all going to sound like familiar activities, since you probably will remember doing them when you were a child 🙂

1.Painting with Hands (and Feet!)

A great way to incorporate messy play into your child’s routine is through painting with their hands and feet. Yes, you read that right! Let your little ones dip their toes and fingers into paint and create artwork using their limbs as brushes.

Painting with hands and feet not only promotes creativity, but it also helps improve fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Plus, it’s a great sensory experience for young children as they feel the texture of the paint on their skin.

To set up this activity, simply pour some washable paint onto a tray or surface and let your child go wild. Lay out large sheets of paper for them to create a larger masterpiece.

Don’t worry about the mess, just embrace it and have fun with your child as they explore the world of painting with their hands and feet. Set the materials up outside for low stress and easy cleanup. Your preschooler will likely love this messy play idea, and who knows, you might even enjoy it too!

Next up, let’s explore another classic messy play idea that never gets old: making mud pies.

2.Making Mud Pies

Next on our list of open ended play ideas for preschoolers is making mud pies. This classic activity is an excellent way for your child to explore the outdoors and let their imagination run wild. All you need is a patch of dirt, water, and some old kitchen utensils to get started.

Encourage your child to use their hands to mix the dirt and water together, and let them experiment with different textures and consistencies. They can also add in natural materials such as leaves or twigs to make their mud pies even more interesting.

Not only is making mud pies a fun sensory experience, but it also helps develop your child’s fine motor skills as they manipulate the materials. After your child has had their fill of making mud pies, you can move on to our next idea: exploring sensory bins.

3.Exploring Sensory Bins

Sensory bins are another great way to engage your child’s senses through unstructured play. They are simple to create and can be filled with a variety of materials such as rice, sand, or dried beans. You can add in small toys or objects, like plastic animals, cars, or spoons, for your child to discover while they explore.

There are numerous benefits of sensory play. Not only do sensory bins provide a fun and tactile experience, but they also encourage imaginative play and can help develop fine motor skills.

4.Playing with Playdough

Playing with classic playdough is a great way to encourage unstructured play in preschoolers. It allows them to use their imagination and creativity to make anything they want, from simple shapes to more complex designs. While they are having fun (and strengthening their hand muscles!), they are also developing important skills such as hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. And the best part is that you can easily make your own playdough at home with just a few simple ingredients (there are tons of recipes on Pinterest) or you can buy it in a ton of fun colors.

5.Take a nature walk

Take a walk outside and encourage your child to investigate and collect natural materials such as leaves, rocks, and flowers. Jump in puddles along the way.

6.Building with Loose Parts

Loose parts play refers to any unstructured play where children are given a collection of open-ended materials to work with. In this case, the focus is on building, and the possibilities are endless. Loose parts can include items like sticks, pebbles, shells, blocks, cardboard tubes, and more.

Through building with loose parts, preschoolers can develop their creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. They can experiment with size, shape, weight, and balance as they construct different structures. They can also learn about cause and effect as they see how changes they make to their creations affect their stability or appearance.

Building with loose parts also encourages collaboration and communication skills as children work together to build structures or combine their individual contributions into one unified creation. It is a great way to promote teamwork and socialization in young children.

7. Get messy with shaving cream

Spray shaving cream on a table or tray, and let the kids explore and create designs with their hands. Smear, squish, pile it up!

8. Water play

Any kind of water play or water table provides a sensory experience that allows kids to pour, splash, and scoop. They can experiment with different objects they find in the backyard and observe how they interact with water. Mix in mud, sticks, leaves, whatever. We all remember making “soup” out of water and leaves and sticks when we were little. 

Check out the hand pump water table we built

9. Play with slime

There are tons of slime recipes on Pinterest, from basic to glitter, to edible versions. Similar to playdough, slime is a great sensory activity. Kids can squeeze, stretch, and make all kinds of sounds with slime. I pinned some good ones to get you started:

Click here to visit our Slime Recipes Pinterest board

10. Build a pillow fort

Not really messy, but always super fun to take all the cushions off your couch and pile them up to make a fort. My kids loved making a fort on rainy days and then watching a movie in it. A good cozy way to spend the afternoon.

In conclusion, messy play may seem like a pain for parents, but the benefits for your child’s development are undeniable. By engaging in unstructured play, your child is able to enhance their creativity, improve their fine motor skills, and learn about the world around them. From painting with hands and feet to building with loose parts, there are endless open ended play ideas for preschoolers to explore. So, encourage your little one to get their hands dirty and let their imagination run wild.

Click here to read our post on best art supplies for 5 year olds

What are your child’s favorite messy activities? Tell us in the comments!


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