12 of the Best Messy Play Themes

Messy play is a lot of fun and messy play themes makes it even better!

Theming messy play activities can make a child’s learning experience more engaging. As well as this, concepts will be better understood when tied with something concrete – for example, counting objects and naming animals.

In this post we’ll discuss the benefits of messy play and themes ; things to consider, what you need to get started, as well as 12 of the very best messy play themes.

Benefits of Messy Play


Messy play fosters imagination, curiosity, and discovery. When children are provided with new and engaging ways to play, they are more likely to experiment with movement, ideas, and creative ways to get hands-on with the activity.

Whilst children may enjoy playing with the different textures provided by messy play, older children might begin trying to construct things, acting out scenes, and inventing new games.

Communication and Language

Messy play provides opportunities to use new vocabulary and ways of communicating. Older children can talk to each other about the activity itself and what they’re doing, whilst younger children will absorb the new language that you’re using to describe different toys, noises, and textures.


Watching a child become really focused on an activity is one of the best things about being a parent. Practising this kind of concentration can help to foster learning skills as they grow and start attending school.

Physical Movement

Playing with objects of different sizes – from grains of sand to blue whales! – will help your child to develop their fine motor skills. Holding and manipulating small objects is great for using the smaller muscles of the hand – in the future this will help them to do things such as dress themselves, feed themselves, write, and draw.

Independent play

Independent play is important for many reasons. It allows children to have a little downtime, as well as encouraging confidence, self-reliance, and independence.

Playing alone also helps children to become better learners. To provide children with independent play opportunities is great for their individual learning.

Messy Play Themes

Why choose a Messy Play Theme?

Choosing a theme means positioning play around a certain topic. Theming makes an activity more engaging and meaningful, leading to stronger connections in the brain – why count on our fingers when we can count dinosaurs?!

Themes are also the perfect way to provide educational opportunities around what your child is interested in. If they’re playing with something they love, they’re more likely to learn something!

What do you need for messy play?

Unless you simply love to clean, messy play is best provided inside a tuff tray, container, or bath. Anything that can contain the ‘mess’ will make the experience more fun for both you and your child.

The best way to prepare for messy play is to start collecting things – gift wrap, discounted packets of pasta and rice, natural objects (shells, leaves, pinecones). Collect anything that you think might be interesting for your child to engage with in some way, you’ll thank yourself later! Kitchen Utensils are a must have!

You might also like to invest in a painting overall to keep your child’s clothes protected.

But really, all you need is a little creativity and a small pair of hands ready to get messy! Our premade messy play kits make the process even easier, providing everything you need to get started with a messy play theme.

Things to consider

Messy play is a wonderful opportunity for children of all ages to learn, but there are a few things that you might want to consider to enhance the experience.

  • Some children really don’t enjoy getting messy, dirty, or wet. If this is the case with your child, stick to dry materials such as sand and rice.
  • Consider choking hazards – if you’re using small objects as a part of your messy play set up, remember to observe younger children who might put the items in their mouths.
  • Protect any surfaces or floor space around your container that might otherwise be damaged by the contents of your messy play.

Messy Play Themes

Here are some of the very best and diverse messy play themes to get you started on your adventure!

Start with your child’s current interests to get the most from these themes, then start to branch out as your child becomes confident in their messy, independent play.

1.  Safari

Safari messy play is a wonderful theme to inspire an interest in and love of animals and nature. Help to teach your child all about animals that live a little further from home with toy giraffes, lions, and zebras. You could use sand and dirt as a messy base for this theme, as well as including binoculars for animal-spotting!

Messy Play Themes - Safari Messy Play

2.  Valentines

Setting up a Valentine-themed messy play activity before the big day is a great way to get crafty making gifts for friends and loved ones. Your little one can practice their painting and drawing skills by decorating cards and signing their name.

Why not include baking cupcakes as part of the activity and teach them all about getting messy in the kitchen?!

Here are a few other ideas for holiday-themed messy play activities:

  • Easter – using toy chicks and eggs, yellow play dough, and rainbow spaghetti.
  • Mother’s Day – a container of pink puffy rice, hearts, bubbles and some crafts to make a card with.
  • Christmas – create your own Christmas tree decorations using plain baubles, paint, and glitter!
  • Halloween – Jelly, neon spaghetti. Pumpkin gunge and apple printing!

Messy Play Themes - Valentines

3.  Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs is a wonderful theme – enjoyed by many children – There are many ways we can explore the world of dinosaurs. Use any dinosaur figures you have to create a jungle-like land before time. You could use moss and dirt as a base, and create “trees” using garden-cuttings. Walking their toy dinosaurs through the scene will help to develop motor skills as well as providing them with an opportunity to imagine scary scenes! Make your own Dinosaur eggs using Ice! Also using Cabbage leaves and lime pieces add effect of a Dinosaur World!

Messy Play Themes - Dinosaurs

4.  Woodland

Encourage your little one to connect with the outdoors with a woodland-themed messy play. This is the ideal activity for those days when it’s just too wet to spend lots of time outdoors; you can bring nature inside! Prepare ahead of time by going on a nature hunt to collect pine cones, leaves, sticks, and anything else with an interesting texture or colour.

Messy Play Themes - Woodland

5.  Vegetable garden

Teach your children all about growing their own vegetables through messy play! Fill your tuff tray or tub with dirt, and “grow” plastic or wooden vegetables by “planting” them in the soil. Here are some ideas for what to include in your vegetable garden messy play:

  • Toy vegetables or real vegetables
  • Spade, rake, watering can
  • Gardening gloves
  • Plant pots, real leaves

Once their vegetables have “grown”, why not have a dinner party with their favourite toys?

Messy Play Themes - Vegetable Garden

6.  Shapes

Learning about shapes through hands-on activities makes it so much more interesting than simply looking at images of different shapes. You could use puzzle pieces, cardboard cut-outs, or sponges cut into circles, triangles, and squares.

Now to make it messy…

You might like to add sand, dirt, or paper and paint to your tuff tray for your child to interact with. They can use their shaped objects to create prints in the sand, mud, or on the paper whilst you name the shapes that they’re creating.

7.  At the beach

When you can’t go to the beach, why not bring it home?

Fill your container with sand and shells, then put a small bucket and spade inside for hours of digging and sandcastle building. Building from sand is a great way to teach your child about wet and dry – they’ll see that dry sand is no good for building castles, whilst wet sand sticks together perfectly!

Messy Play Themes - At The Beach

8.  Construction

Think sand, dirt, pebbles and everything else that you might find at a building site! Grab a couple of wooden or plastic diggers and let your child have fun with moving various materials around the tuff tray using their toy vehicles. A great way to develop fine motor skills.

Messy Play Themes - Construction

9.  Under The Sea

Under-the-sea messy play is a favourite for kids! First, you’ll need some under-the-sea creatures. You might also like to use shells and stones, depending on what you have available and the age of your child.

Fill your container with water and a little blue food colouring to create an ocean scene – you could also use blue-coloured jelly!

Messy Play Themes - Under the sea

10. Space

Create a space scene using coloured rice. Simply use the rice to cover the base of your container (note that rice is not edible).

Next, you’ll need some planets and glow-in-the-dark stars to create outer space. If you have any available, you might also like to use space vehicles – such as UFOs and rockets!

Messy Play Themes - Space

11. Rainbows

We love Rainbows. – what a lovely theme to learn colours!

There are so many rainbow themed activities that children can get involved in -Rainbow Jelly, Rainbow Rice and Coloured Spaghetti are to name a few! Children love to explore the colours in the tuff trays and you could add various coloured utensils to the activity to explore filling and emptying, making marks and mixing the colours together.

Messy Play Themes - Rainbows

12. Calm-down kit

A calm-down kit isn’t necessarily messy, but it’s hands-on and a wonderful way to help children de-stress and quietly engage with interesting objects.

Here are a few ideas for what to include in your calm-down kit:

  • A glitter bottle – add water and glitter to a plastic bottle and glue the lid shut.
  • Bubbles
  • Weighted teddy animal
  • Fidget toys – such as fidget spinners or stress balls
  • Stretchy resistance bands
  • Puzzle
  • Music player
  • A book that they enjoy reading alone
  • Cloud dough – learn how to make this here

Which messy play theme are you going to try next?!