Homeschooling / Parenting

Why Kids Need Real Play

Why Kids Need Real Play

Out of the corner of my eye, I catch sight of my daughter tentatively dipping her toe into the squishy mud. I freeze. Two opposing images flash to mind; me juggling a wriggling tired baby on my hip whilst trying to wash a muddy child, or delight etched on her mud-streaked face. I have a choice here. To keep quiet and observe, or to issue a warning. Maybe, ‘don’t get those clothes dirty’, or ‘just your feet!’

I keep quiet.

There is magic here. This moment is something worthy of my protection.

It’s only dirt. ThisΒ is what childhood is all about.

Why Kids Need Real Play

And yet, these experiences are becoming more and more rare for our children. Did you know that, according to a recent report, almost half of children aged 5-12 get an average of just over one hour of real play per day. This is one third less time than their parents spent at that age, a drop of 36 per cent in a single generation. Does that shock you? It should! Surely we are not ok with this? Have we become so busy that there is no time for real play anymore? I think it’s time to reevaluate our priorities.

Recently I wrote about the importance of free unstructured play for our kids. I was happy to see so many people acknowledging the importance of real play. A lot of people agreed that we need to let children imagine, create, and get messy. Whether it’s the freedom to climb a tree, catch tadpoles in the creek, or paint your sister blue. But, even though everyone seemed to agree that kids need unstructured play, there were also those that said it wasn’t ‘practical’. That they were too busy at home, and at school it wasn’t feasible to have a group of children playing completely child-led as it often involved mess.

Some people acknowledged the importance of real play for our kids but weren’t entirely comfortable with the realities of letting it happen. What if they allowed them to climb that tree and they slipped and fell? We all want to protect our children, of course, and the pressure is sometimes high for modern parents! We see pictures of perfectly put together homes and children all over social media. But life is not like that. Life is crazy, and messy, and unique to each family. Real life and real play is not posed or styled, but it is perfect just the way it is.

Why Kids Need Real Play

Kids need to experience the world in order to learn about it. They need to play to develop into the amazing people they are meant to be. The more times they hear ‘no’, ‘stop’, or ‘be careful‘ when it comes to play, the more opportunities that may be missed. Real play can sometimes be messy and loud, there’s no doubting that. But are we really going to let a little mess put us off? Watching my children, who all decided to join their sister, laugh and squeal and cover themselves in thick sticky mud, I can tell you that this is a scene I wouldn’t want to miss.

Surely the benefits of letting kids get messy through real play, far outweigh the inconvenience.

What’s so good about real play?

Children explore the world using all their senses. This is how they learn, and it often results in mess. Free, messy, unstructured play has loads of benefits, including:

  • Developing confidence and independence.
  • Honing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
  • Practicing problem-solving and planning skills.
  • Increased concentration.
  • Experimenting and developing a scientific mind.
  • Learning about cause and effect.
  • Messy art projects allow kids to express themselves, refine their sense of touch, learn new vocabulary, and be creative.
  • Increased appreciation for, and knowledge of, our environment.
  • Physical health and fitness.
  • And, if you’ve ever seen a kid immersed in messy free play then it’s impossible to deny the happiness it brings them.

Many of these things can not be taught in a classroom. So, no matter how impractical it seems, surely we owe it to our kids to make time for real play. No matter if you live in a small house, no matter if you have no backyard, no matter if your mother will comment about your kid looking like they haven’t had a bath for two weeks! Let’s make it happen!

Now don’t get me wrong, I hear you that it can seem too hard sometimes. I have four kids and the amount of washing they produce is unbelievable. I’m all for ways to make it easier. But limiting their play choices to only those that are clean and tidy is not one of them.

Why Kids Need Real Play

How to make the mess of real play a little more manageable

  • Change your expectations. Having children is going to be messy, it just is. Gone are the days of sparkling floors and windows without sticky hand prints. Expect mess!
  • Celebrate mess and what it means. Dirt, paint, toys on the floor, glitter permanently trapped in your carpet…all these things tell the story of a day of fun and play. Children learn through play, and the more you get comfortable with letting messy play happen the more freedom your children will feel, and the more benefit they will get out of it! Embrace mess! It is a sign of fun and learning.
  • Set some boundaries. Let your kids know where it’s ok to make mess, and where it’s not. They will have the freedom to play without you worrying they’ll end up painting the TV. In our house, you are free to create art whenever you like, but it is done in the playroom or outside. Watercolour paints and play dough are ok for inside, but poster paint and clay are for outside. I have a two-year-old who likes to paint her body so that’s best done outside!
  • Buy washable art supplies. Sometimes kids get caught up in the moment and a lovely picture gets drawn on a wall, oops! I only purchase washable art materials in case of this scenario.
  • Be prepared. If you know things might get messy, prepare beforehand, e.g. if the kids want to paint, have a bucket ready to tip all the used brushes and cups into when they’re done, a tub for washing hands, and an old towel.
  • Have play clothes. Save the good stuff for special occasions and let the kids dress in clothes you’re happy for them to get dirty. Most things will wash out, and if it doesn’t, who cares, it’s just going to get dirty again anyway.
  • Pack spare clothes. And maybe a towel! Or have a bag always in the car for spontaneous messy play when out and about. We once went out for breakfast and the kids ended up having a swim at the beach in their clothes. It was unexpected and messy but they had the best fun so I’m glad I was prepared and didn’t have to say no to that.
  • Join in. Dip your toes in the mud, do some painting, build a sand castle. And then all pile into the shower together after. Get amongst the mess, real play is fun for adults too.

Why Kids Need Real Play

I watch on as the girls squelch the mud between their toes, make mud pies, and do what children do best: play. Even the baby has joined in now. As I watch the joy on their faces I know I have made the right decision. Real play is about letting kids be kids, and embracing the messy moments. It’s about letting them play freely, without restriction. This is beautiful, messy, joyful, real play and learning. It’s only dirt. But it’s so much more.Why Kids Need Real Play


April 8, 2016 at 7:45 pm

What a wonderful article! This was truly a must read for me today as my husband and I just finished talking about how we have been on our oldest, 4 years old, case all the time lately. It hasn’t made us feel very good and I know it sucks the joy out of what ever he happens to be doing at the time. How wonderful to just allow our children to play without interfering all the time. Thank you.

April 8, 2016 at 8:18 pm

Thanks once again Sara. This is one that I’ll be sharing.

I’m always saying ‘mess is a must’. There’s a lot of parents that find it hard to let go of a clean house and clean child. They steer their little ones away from messy experiences, without realising that sensory play is a huge part of healthy development.

Your post really brings it home, but gently shares practical strategies for minimising the stress and angst that may otherwise surface.

April 8, 2016 at 9:28 pm

Even my twelve year olds love getting messy and mucking about outside… the fact that they still gravitate towards this sort of play shows me how important it really is.

April 8, 2016 at 10:48 pm

We love getting dirty! Whenever I see my kids covered in dirt, the first thing I say is that it looks like they’ve been having fun. xx

April 8, 2016 at 11:10 pm

Great message, I think I need to print a quote or two from this and stick it on my fridge because I sometimes struggle with the mess thing but can’t bring myself to ban glitter, messy art stuff and dirty feet from the house. We have glitter permanently melted onto the floorboards.

Sheila Qualls
April 9, 2016 at 2:53 am

Kids love getting dirty. I loved it when I was a kid. Heck, I love it now! Too much time in front of TV or electronics nowadays. Play is good for the “emotional health” of a child.

I blog at Real Moms Don’t Judge about the kinds of things that stop us from making these kinds of decisions for our kids: Fear of judgement. I think this information is something we need to hear. Great post.

April 9, 2016 at 3:31 am

I wholeheartedly agree with this. Having moved temporarily abroad, and renting a house for this period, I’m acutely aware that there are certain situations that are less than ideal for getting really mucky, and I look forward to being back in our own home where we won’t be fretting about keeping the rented house clean (can’t afford to lose that deposit!) or what the home owner’s association might say about the state of our garden (won’t be moving to a HOA again if I can help it!). These external factors are ones that have had a pretty big negative impact and have been a valuable pointer about what our priorities will be in the future if/when we move again. Oh, and anxiety about venomous snakes and spiders is curtailing our exploration, too. But aside from all that, definitely getting out and messy as much as we can under the circumstances. I know some of my favourite childhood photos are the ones where muck/paint/mess were involved. I’m sure my mum was in despair with the cleanup but those memories were worth it.

April 9, 2016 at 6:33 am

I just read a post on a forum from a mother asking if she’d reacted appropriately to her 3 year old drawing on herself with texta – she sent her to bed and called her father. I was flabbergasted. What is the big fear about mess? I just don’t get it. My daughter has gone from scribbling on herself to creating really intricate face art – learning all sorts of things – I’ve never shut her down. I could understand fear of mess if you had a lack of water or no washing machine, but nowadays? We are so lucky.

April 9, 2016 at 8:26 am

Now that the weather is getting warmer here, my kids are obsessed with the hose. Spraying every where and everything (my poor flowers). I’ve had a hard time keeping quiet on that one! But the joy they get from that hose is priceless! It makes a mess and every ones clothes get wet, but it’s worth it.

Kathy Margolis
April 9, 2016 at 5:11 pm

Thank you for this article. Breaks my heart to see children sitting mesmorised in front of screens. They are missing out on so much. I raised 3 sons who squelched in mud, climbed trees, and tinkered with real tools. Makes me sad to see so many children who will never be risk takers because they are always told to be careful.

Sujatha Syam
April 9, 2016 at 7:59 pm

wow its indeed a great article.. i really loved reading it. I have a 2 year old son who always wants to play on floors, and i am really worried all time telling him that not to do that and this as he was getting dirty, because i had a feeling that all the dirt should not make him sick in someway. But i do realised that i am always stopping his fun by telling him not to do that. Somehow i was not able to accept the fact thats its o.k to play in dirt. But now after reading your article,,, i feel more relaxed and i had decided that i am gonna let my kid have some real play.. i dont want to take his fun away, he has to experience his freedom and joy.. afterall like all other moms in the world i always want my baby to be happy at all the time.. so i am gonna let him play and take his chances and let him learn from what he does. Indeed thanks a lot for this lovely article, i am saving it to send to all my other precious friends who are also worried like me, when their kids play in the dirt. Its an eye opener. Great and thanks.

April 10, 2016 at 9:43 pm

Such a fabulous post and I couldn’t agree more. We love playing in mud and kids are 100% washable. Memories are forever.

Kenza Saadi
April 11, 2016 at 10:16 am

Thank you for this wonderful post.

Laura Lewis
April 12, 2016 at 7:30 pm

Sara your blog really is amazing, as someone who has previously tried to prevent things getting dirty or messy, and has been trying very hard to change that this post really brought a smile to my face, I have to remind myself of the benefits of this often and remember that it’s selfish of me to say no to this sort of play. You are so right, the benefits are undeniable and so is the happiness that it brings our children πŸ™‚ xx

April 14, 2016 at 11:14 am

Forest Playschool in Chicago is all about learning through play. I wish my kids were young enough to attend!

April 15, 2016 at 2:45 am

there is one aspect of your article that confuses me. I get that the point of the article is to advocate that mess is a part of learning and we shouldn’t shy away from it, but it seems to go even further than that, implying that play is only real if it’s messy. Throwing a ball against a wall, building with blocks, just running around outside, etc., are all quite real and not particularly messy. Did you mean to imply that those aren’t “real play,”?

April 15, 2016 at 7:32 am

Great post. I’m so glad someone shared the idea of allowing my girls time to play and get messy rather being structured like I would naturally be. It is a valuable time of learning and I see how it allows them to be creative without restriction. Somedays I had a hard time with the messy hands and feet but now that they’ve gotten older I miss that stage. Life was much easier when we spent all day making mud pies. πŸ™‚ I will be sharing this.

Lisa Auer
April 15, 2016 at 7:37 pm

Thanks for sharing Sarah. Love the photos. To add to ‘What’s so good about real play?’ perhaps one of the most important points is – immersing themselves in and thereby gaining a love and respect for nature. Since nature is not just an environment ‘out there’ but who we are and where we live.

April 19, 2016 at 12:23 am

Parenthood is not easy, but I think you are using the right method.
Thanks for sharing

May 18, 2016 at 6:50 am

Great article, but where is the evidence that Real Play, as you call it, truly leads to all the advantages you listed? Do you have sources? Scientific research?

Mrs L
May 18, 2016 at 3:07 pm

Fantastic article. I’m a little OCD about cleanliness but do love nothing more than seeing my son fully emerging himself into an activity and having fun. Must remind myself of this the next time I go to say “don’t do that”.
Thank you for the reminder.

May 19, 2016 at 2:15 am

Beautiful article! I am gonna get messy with my kids :)ASAP

July 2, 2016 at 11:01 am

We live in India, and space is a big constraint. I try and include “play” as much as possible for the three boys, infact that’s all they do, the whole day. But it’s not muddy messy – there’s no access to mud. But they run, they build, they make funny sounds, they pretend. Is that enough play?

July 31, 2016 at 10:55 am

I feel young again after reading this real play.
I remember how much fun I had wallowing in the mud while rain water washed my happy face and dirty body and tickled feet.
It felt soo good.

January 3, 2017 at 1:32 am

And when they get older let them play alone. Without you. Or another adult.
The problems we have today as adults as employees as citizens is we are always looking for supervision.
Better to let kids solve their own issues about fair or foul, in or out,fair or unfair – even to the point of how to handle a bully.

March 29, 2017 at 6:19 am

We’re all for dirt, mess & free play here… I’m just curious how you got them home after the mud fest! πŸ˜…

Kathy Riley
March 29, 2017 at 10:40 am

Could you email me this article ? I want to share it with my class…… Their parents….My principal who doesn’t understand…..

Laci Brinn
April 18, 2017 at 11:29 am

Love it! As a mother of 5 small children…mostly boys I couldn’t agree more! Laci @

Sarah Richards
May 9, 2017 at 1:02 am

My daughter starts bouncing off the walls when she’s been inside for too long. We go outside and she’s so content running around without her diaper, pulling weeds, picking up sticks and leaves, “building her nest.” I fill up a little pool and let her just get filthy dirty, because you know what? It’s easier to let that happen and just throw them in the bath than try to keep them clean all the time.

Jennifer Brown
July 28, 2017 at 8:09 am

Love this article and agree with so much but what do you do when your child really hates getting dirty? I have been a stay at home mum to my daughter for 4 years and she is very creative and loves to draw, dance sing , climb and is v social etc but has always been over sensitive to getting wet, loud noises and hates getting dirty, sticky etc. i taught art before becoming mum and always try to set up small sensory activities – sand, water play etc but she avoids a lot. Same if i take her to parks etc, she avoids the mud. Its easier said than done!! I just follow the child and encourage but don’t force, not all kids want to get messy!

Lisa Stevenson
October 21, 2017 at 8:13 am

I loved this article, Every parent needs to read this!!
My background is an Early Childhood Educator and we have a curriculum at our centre called Play to Learn. This is exactly how we organized our day, allowing the children to play in the mud, build things with sticks and string and encourage their natural sense of wonder. I’ll be sharing your information with others.

lisa stevenson
August 27, 2018 at 10:38 pm

100% right on target,
my motto has been if the kids go home dirty they had a great day.

March 19, 2020 at 2:25 am

Really great suggestion about spare clothes and towel if heading out. If we were going to the park or especially the creeks or lake, I would line the seats of the van with towels as we were getting out and then it was just an easy toss in the laundry or hose down when we got home. I would double the towels on the seat of one particular child – it never failed to amaze me how kids could all play the same game in the same spot and some seemed to naturally squat and would just do a quick dust off and others looked like they had rolled around in it for days, lol. The beauty of different personalities…

Leave a Reply