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How Does Messy Play Benefit Children’s Gross Motor Skills?

As explored in How does Messy Play Benefit Children’s Fine Motor Skills?, messy play is a brilliantly fun way for children to develop the beginnings of strength and dexterity in their hands and fingers that will be vital later in life. Messy play doesn’t just help with the smaller muscles, but the large ones, too.

Gross motor skills involve the large muscles of the arms, legs and torso. They provide stability and support for everyday movement, as well as providing a strong foundation for fine motor skills to work from (it’s no use having strong hands if you can’t lift your arm up to use them!). We use our gross motor skills whenever we make whole-body movements, such as vacuuming, carrying heavy boxes or jogging.

Typically, by the age of three or four, children should be able to jump with both feet. To help them reach this milestone, however, we need to ensure they are taking part in activities and play that encourages the use of, and therefore strengthens, those muscles.

Photo by Peter Idowu on Unsplash

In younger children, gross motor skills are honed by learning to reach out, kick, sit and stand. As children get older and become more active, this development comes from lifting objects, running and jumping. When children dig in sand, jump in puddles or use sticks to mark-make in mud, the larger muscles in their arms and legs are being used and the children are learning to have more control, coordination and precision in their movements.

Developing gross motor skills requires slightly more adult supervision than fine motor skills as, in basic terms, it is the difference between a child dropping a crayon on the floor and dropping themselves on the floor.

While messy play that involves the whole body is, undeniably, messier, it’s great fun and a fantastic way to get children moving. Playing in puddles of water or sandpits is a great option for some simple, outdoor messy play; digging, scooping, carrying buckets of sand/water and even kicking (as long as they don’t splash others too much!) are all great ways to work those larger muscles!

To enjoy some messy play that will help children with their gross motor skills, why not try our feet painting activity below?

Feet Painting

What you will need:

  • A large sheet/roll of paper (an old roll of wallpaper is a great option)
  • A few bottles of non-toxic, washable finger paint, in different colours
  • Paper plates
  • Plastic sheets/protective floor covering (if doing the activity inside)

How to prepare:

  1. If doing the activity inside, spread the protective covering over the floor before placing paper down. If outside, ensure it is in an area that is ok getting messy, or can be cleaned easily.
  2. Put the paper down on the floor
  3. Pour the paint onto the paper plates and place around the paper so children can easily dip their feet in.
a close up on the bottom of the feet of a small child, that have been painted blue.  Very shallow depth of field with focus on toes of front foot.

Doing the activity:

Begin by demonstrating to the children how they can stand in the paint on the paper plates and then walk along the paper, making coloured footsteps. While they should still be supervised, once they have the hang of it the children should be able to carry out the activity themselves. It’s very likely that hands will go into the paint as much as feet, and the children may get pretty messy, so make sure there are spare clothes available for afterwards!

When finished, enjoy the artwork your children have produced!

Tracking the activity:

8-20 months

Physical Development: Moving and Handling: “Enjoys the sensory experience of making marks in damp sand, paste or paint.”

Expressive arts and design: Exploring and using media and materials: “Notices and is interested in the effects of making movements which leave marks.”

16-26 months

Physical Development: Moving and Handling: “Makes connections between their movement and the marks they make.”

Expressive arts and design: Exploring and using media and materials: “Notices and is interested in the effects of making movements which leave marks.”

22-36 months:

Expressive arts and design: Exploring and using media and materials: “Experiments with blocks, colours and marks.”