Messy play, indoors on a rainy day. I was feeling brave, and I’ve never wanted to be the sort of mum that prioritises a spotless house over playtime fun. We’ve done water indoors, sand indoors, and recently branched out into sensory boxes involving rice and oatmeal. So I felt I had nothing to fear from cornflour and water play. I envisaged a bit of careful stirring, gasps of awe and amazement on little faces as they watched patters form, and perhaps a few happy giggles as they immersed their hands in this new texture, followed by a wipe of the hands and a mop of the kitchen floor, at worst a change of clothes for the little ones. What I hadn’t counted on was pretty much needing to redecorate.
This is how it happened (and it certainly passed a rainy afternoon)…
N and I began the fun while L was at school and F asleep. We started with a box of cornflour, felt it, poured it, blew it…
Maybe what I should have done is add the water myself, but I was still in full-on enthusiasm mode and wanted N to be completely experimental and autonomous. Sop she added water, from a cup, and squirted from a drinking bottle. She made good use of the range of mixing apparatus I’d provided (spoons, forks, blunt knives, a hand whisk, paint brushes, lolly sticks, pipecleaners…)
We had this gorgeous, silky, gloopy texture that is like nothing else. It was solid, required digging, yet slipped through your fingers and poured beautifully. It was really quite addictive – cornflour and water is truly the queen of sensory play. I actually can’t wait to go out and buy more cornflour (yes, I am actually insane enough to do this again tomorrow).
We stirred, we painted, we dabbed with sponges, we painted our hands, we poured some onto the box lid to draw patterns…
Note the kitchen floor getting stickier by stages in the background of these pictures.
We used a syringe to draw the mixture in and squirt it back out, making patterns on the surface. N was delighted at mastering the syringe.
We dug and cut using knives. We “buried” the utensils in the thicker mixture at the bottom of our tub and dug them out again. This was FUN in capitals. As I said, more cornflour tomorrow (even if it’s just for me!).
F was awake by now, and I tried to include her but she made it clear this was not an activity she wanted to participate in. I provided her with a shallow tray of gloop and she looked at me with an “are you mad?” expression, as if to say “do you relly think I’m putting my fingers in that mess?” – I gave her a paintbrushe which she just chewed. I placed her foot in the tray and she burst into tears. But cheered up when I let her play with the wet wipe I’d used to clean her foot – so that was as much sensory play as she wanted. Fair enough.
N enthusiastically kept adding water. I wanted to stop her, but also really wanted her to discover the changes in the material herself, to experiement with the adding of water and learn…and she did. She did truly enjoy the process, and described it wonderfully as she played. She was completely absorbed.
So, we ended up with some very watery mixture, which was just a bit slippery. And I was out of cornflour. So, we added flour. Of course, I knew what would happen, that we would end up with a gluey mess, but what’s wrong with a gluey mess when it comes to sensory play? We essentially ended up with a large tub of glue.
N requested the paint tray, and had fun adding food colouring to the gloop in each compartment. When she began to paint the kitchen floor I reneged on my resolution to let her do her own thing, and gave her some paper. She was beautifully experimental and loved her new painting medium, which worked well for brush painting, sticking and splattering with a spatula as well as a brush. These were the results:
And we repeated the process of alternately adding water then flour, until F got bored of watching and N didn’t want to carry on without me. She basically carried on adding more water, playing with the material, adding more flour, playing with the gloop, ad infinitum. I’m sure she would have carried on all day if I’d been able to sit with her throughout.
So, we were left with this:
As well as a trail of gluey footprints across the living room carpet.
It doesn’t look too bad in the picture, but it was a nightmare to clean up, since adding water only made the problem worse, no amount of surface cleaner seemed to dissolve it, na dmopping was just more messy play. I ended up scooping up most of the mess with towels, letting the remainder dry before hoovering it up, then scrubbing the floor by hand. N thought this was marvellous, and enjoyed the clean up as much as the play.
But that wasn’t the end of the story, because I am foolish, and because I felt guilty that L had missed out on the fun. You can guess what happened. When he got home from school I told him I had something special for him to do… I put down a plastic tablecloth which only served to give me a false sense of security…
I should have been warned when I called it messy play, and he expressed his intention to “get as messy as I can, not tidy”… he loved every minute and I was so pleased to see him getting stuck in and not holding back that I let this whole thing go much further than any reasonable person would. The fun was doubled for N by having a partner in crime, and whilst they were of course still learning about the materials, it was less of a considered, absorbed exploration and more like two piglets playing in mud.
After school can be a fraught time, with a tired boy and a girl whose nose is slightly put out of joint at having to share the attention she ha’s had to herself all day, so it was nothing short of wonderful to see them playing so happily together and co-operating.
I didn’t even stop them when they painted each other:
It continued until it ended up looking much like glastonbury in the rain, only whiter, and indoors. L and N basically slid about in the gloopy mixture and slathered it all over each other. It seemed pointless stopping them at this stage. It ended like this:
followed swiftly by this:
And both begging to do some more!
The clean-up operation extended well into the evening b ut would I do it again? Absolutely. The two older children got so much out of this activity:
- L really let himself go and played in an uncontrolled way, with no fixed objective, which is something I’ve been trying to encourage for ages. Ihe did keep asking what the tools were for, but when I said it was up to him to choose, he threw himself in, literally.
- They both learned about the materials, found out for themselves what happened when they added the water, added more flour, added colouring.
- They mixed colours and observed the results
- they painted with a new medium
- They experiemented with different tools
- N practised mark-making as a pre-writing activity, in a wonderful sensory way i would never have thought of, and most brilliantly she discovered it for herself.
- they poured and measured.
- They role-played painting, decorating, cleaning.
- They used different words to describe what they saw
- They co-operated in play (yippeee!), built their relationship, had fun together, and practised sharing and social interaction.
- They mentored each other, taking turns at learning from the other despite the difference in age. This was amazing to watch.
I would honestly never have thought up for myself the things they would learn from this type of play. I did begin doing this as a way of involving baby F, who ironically seems to dislike the more messy sensory experiences at the moment (they seem to overwhelm her and she is much happier discovering something quietly like the feel of the carpet – maybe in a few months’ time!) – and am so pleased to have discovered what value it has for my older children. Which is why i am crazy enough to go out and buy more cornflour.