Looking for messy play ideas for 1 and 2 year olds? We’ve got you covered with ideas for wet and dry messy play for toddlers
Welcome to your one-stop shop for fun messy play ideas for babies and toddlers aged 1 and 2.
Including plenty of ‘dry’ messy play ideas, for when you don’t have hours of time to clean up, said toddler, as well as, potentially, your entire house!
Yup, ironically “messy” play can be fairly tidy. (It’s relative though…)
Each messy play idea will not only facilitate learning and development in toddlers but are also lots of fun.
They’re aimed at 1 and 2-year-olds. That tricky age that wants to move, move, move and play with ALL the things. But never for long enough for you to even finish a cup of tea, right?!
So, as well as giving your little one chance to burn off some of that instinctive desire to explore the world around them, these messy play ideas may give you an extra few minutes of peace.
I’ve tried and tested each one with my daughter and managed to finish off a few jobs on the never-ending list of to-dos, all while drinking a full cup of tea hot for a change. Result!
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What is messy sensory play for kids?
Messy sensory play refers to any activity that allows children to work with their hands to create a controlled mess. It’s a style of play in which children get to take the lead, explore and experience a wide variety of textures and materials.
However, messy play doesn’t always have to be of the gooey, sticky variety though. Dry messy play ideas for 1-2 year olds can facilitate this exploratory need too.
The advantages are obvious: a quick hoover or sweep deals with the bulk of the mess in seconds.
How does messy play help child development?
Messy play aids child development in a number of different ways:
Fine motor skills
Messy play uses the hands and fingers, which promotes fine motor skill development. As a result, your toddler’s gross motor skills improve too.
The foundations of their body balance and spatial awareness have been laid.
Ultimately messy play promotes physical development.
Fosters curiosity, imagination and exploration
When you try some of these messy play ideas for 1 and 2 year olds you’ll notice how your toddler becomes lost in their own little world.
They’ll be so excited when faced with a box containing unusual materials. If they’re anything like my little ones, they’ll be thrilled to learn that this is an opportunity to ‘get stuck in.’
Before you know it, the rice tray is the beach and the cars are delivering the families for a fun day out. It is amazing to sit back and see where their imaginations take them.
Encourages communication and language development
If you get involved with your toddler in the midst of their messy play, you’ll experience the joy of actively growing their vocabulary and social skills.
Perhaps you will be Mummy Bear returning from your morning walk in the forest, only to find that your little Goldilocks judges your porridge to be ‘too hot’.
The messy play ideas for 2 year olds will aid communication. Interacting with your child in this fun and imaginative manner has a direct effect on their engagement with the world around them.
This is also one way to create a chatterbox – your toddler is learning that talking is fun!
Facilitates good concentration & independent play
Your toddler will undoubtedly want to apply their concentration to completing the tasks that you’ve facilitated, because the messy tray in front of them looks so inviting.
Although I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing an active role in our messy play sessions, I’ve also found it very fulfilling to leave my 1 year old twins to investigate tray contents together, and develop their own games.
Their confidence in doing so quickly develops.
What can I use for messy play?
When it comes to sensory activities and messy play, just about anything goes really. In our crazy busy household, it’s the simple ideas that work best.
There are plenty of things you can use that you’ll probably already have at home, from dried pasta to oats, with or without some measuring cups to use as scoops and something to contain the mess in – a ‘messy tray’.
So use whatever you have to hand, but in the meantime keep an eye out for things of interest that you can easily collect.
With milk-guzzling older kids, collecting bottle tops was a no-brainer. Who’d have thought a large tray of bottle tops could prove such fun messy play for toddlers?
How do you set up a messy play at home?
1. Find the ‘stuff’ for your little one to experiment with
This is the key component for messy play. The thing your 1 or 2-year-old is going to be squeezing, squishing, rummaging through, stacking scooping and pouring.
Importantly, they need to be baby and toddler safe, if, or should I say, when it goes into your little one’s mouth.
You’ll brimming with ideas after this list of messy play ideas for babies and toddlers.
2. Find a messy tray
This is not always necessary, it just depends on the messy play “stuff”.
You’re bound to have something usable at home already. For example, under-bed storage draw/trays, a large shallow tupperware, roasting dishes and cut-down cardboard boxes all work well.
But if you’re going to regularly provide messy play opportunitities for your toddler I’d recommend:
- this messy tray or Tuff Tray from EdXEducation
- or this Kub Original Tuff Messy Tray if you’re in the UK
Both will be great for dry messy play as well as stickier sensory activities. You can also invest in a table with a sensory bin build in. Check out our recomended sensory bin tables here.
In addition, a groundsheet or tablecloth will ensure a super quick and easy clean-up operation.
3. Add in some utensils or other things of interest
Silicon and wooden kitchen utensils and other kithem items can make the perfect addition to messy play for 1 and 2-year-olds.
This toddler-specific fine motor toolset, which includes a pipette and giant tweezers, is definitely worth the investment if you’re going to be doing lots of activities at home with your little ones.
Other fun things you can add into the mix when facilitating messy play ideas for 1 year olds include: cardboard tubes, egg box cartons, empty chocolate boxes, toy cars, Duplo…
Again, it depends on the messy play material you’re dealing with.
DRY messy play ideas for 1 year old babies
Here’s some messy sensory play for the tiniest tots. Of course, babies are hard work enough without yet more clean up! So let’s start with some dry messy play for 1 year old babies.
1. Messy Play & Discover
Put together a “discovery box” of interesting items for your baby to explore. Pictured is one of the twins playing with different ribbons and fabric off cuts that I’d placed in a hat box.
He was nearly a year year old at the time and loved exploring all the new and interesting textures. Messy play for babies at it’s best – because it took less than a minute to clear up!
2. Contact paper fun
Contact paper provides so much fun for little ones. Your 1 year old can create a messy play masterpiece, simply by sticking things to the sticky canvas.
Think strips of paper and felt, plastic straws, pipe cleaners and other objects safe for babies to handle.
The trickiest part is getting it stuck nicely to the wall. I’d recommend setting up out of sight or reach of your little one, perhaps when they’re napping or eating in their high chair.
You don’t want to get them entangled in the stickiness before you’re ready!
3. Explore Silicone Kitchen Utensils
Babies and toddlers normally love playing with things in the kitchen. Something to do with the time their poor mothers spend tolling away at the stove?!
Anyway, silicon utenils are lovely and soft and also perfectly safe for babies and young toddlers to handle. Playing with a bunch of these makes for a very simple messy play idea for babies.
You could also supply your 1 year old with a small pot and they’re sure to want to cook their own creations!
4. Sound tubes
Here’s an engaging messy play idea of an auditory nature. Your 1 year old baby or older toddler will delight in creating their own musical instruments and hearing new and different noises.
To create a sound tube you’ll only need a few simple supplies:
- Empty paper towel rolls or plastic bottles
- A variety of different materials to go inside each one e.g. like uncooked rice, dried beans, or beads
Now, simply fill each tube with a different material and safely secure the ends of the tubes (duct tape can work for this).
Finally, older toddlers may wish to decorate with pens and/or stickers. My children always love painting their creations…
5. Crinkly Paper Play
There are so many interesting materials perfect for some exploratory messy sensory play. Baking parchment, newspaper, cardboard and plastic egg boxes… the list goes on.
A favorite messy play idea of my 1 year old twins are the plastic tray inserts from the Ferrari Roche box. (My husband is always sneaking these in the shoping trolley!)
They make a lovely crinkly sound and are pretty robust, providing plenty of messy play for babies and toddlers for several days.
And a good excuse to keep buying naughty things!
EDIBLE messy play ideas for toddlers
Young toddlers love to experiment with their mouth as well as their hands. This of course, allows them to explore with another sens, so it’s something to be encouraged. As long as it’s safe, of course!
So here are some messy play ideas for 1 and 2 year olds that use an edible base material.
A little bit of edible messy play for babies would be fun too, depending on where they are on their weaning journey. As always, please watch your little one closely.
6. Edible Cheerio messy play
Cheerios are always popular with toddlers and are great for breakfast on the run. They’re also perfect for edible messy and sensory play ideas!
Simply crush a box in your blender or food processor, until the Cheerios resemble sand. Then you can add to a sensory bin or tray and do as you please.
The Cheerio sensory bin pictured has a few toys and tools added for some simple messy play, ideal for 1 and 2 year old toddlers.
7. Edible Yogurt Finger Paint
Finger painting provides so much opportunity for sensory exploration and creativity. It’s definitely up there as one of the messiest messy play ideas, particularly when the finger paint tastes as good as this one.
For this edible yogurt finger paint simply add food coloring to yogurt. Experiment with different colors and vibrancies and your 1-2 year old is going to have a blast.
Provide some paper and let your little Picasso get to work. Yes, messy play for toddlers can be somewhat artistic too!
8. Spaghetti Sensory Play
Cooked and dyed spaghetti makes for a fun and slippery texture that your toddler will love exploring, both with their hands and mouth.
This type of messy sensory play is simple and fun to theme to the season. Pictured is an eye ball sensory bin – a cute and not too spooky messy play idea for toddlers at Halloween? It’d make a great activity for a Halloween party for little ones.
9. Jello Dig
Here’s another favorite of little kids: Jello! Not only does it make for an easy dessert, it’s great to use in messy play for toddlers.
Simply add small, baby-safe toys to the Jello before it sets. Provide tools or just let your 1 or 2 year old explore (and taste!) with their hands.
How cute and a little bit creepy is the Jello dig activity from authenticallyari_, pictured above?
DRY Messy play for 1-2 year old toddlers
Here’s some fun and simple messy play for 1 year olds and older. Babies won’t be there quite there with the necessary coordination and fine motor skills for these ones, but it won’t be long.
These are dry messy play ideas for toddlers though. Enjoy!
10. Pasta messy play
Your enthusiastic toddler is bound to love playing with pasta. It’s a great messy play idea for 1 year olds as pasta pieces are the perfect size for little hands to grab easily.
They’ll enjoy exploring the feel of the raw pasta, and will likely find dropping it onto the floor very exhilarating. Remember, it’s the simple things…
Include different pasta varieties with new and unusual shapes.
You can extend this messy play idea for 2 year olds by encouraging them to sort the pasta by shape. This develops an awareness of the meaning of ‘different’ and ‘same’/’identical’.
For older toddlers, you could add in some spoons or barbecue tongs and containers and encourage the development of fine motor skills. Who doesn’t love a teddy bear’s pasta party? You could also add in some math by encouraging your toddler to count the pasta pieces into each pot.
Why not try threading the penne pasts onto string, creating your very own nutriment necklace? It’s good fun, and does wonders for increasing finger dexterity.
11. Messy play rice tray
This is not only a messy play idea, it’s a messy tray idea…
If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous and have a spare few minutes, learn how to make colored rice here, it’s not too difficult. However, don’t panic if you’re short of time, white rice is still great fun.
Your toddler will love the feeling of the rice sifting through his hands.
Finger dexterity and hand and shoulder strength are all necessary skills for handwriting in the future. What better way to start than by moving fistfuls of rice from one container to another? It’s just so calming…
Why not create roads amongst the rice realm? Add in dump trucks and diggers, for a fun messy play idea for 2 year olds and older toddlers too.
We invented numerous road setups, and even needed a traffic light system due to to some inconsiderate drivers!
This one is still a hit with my 4 year old – he loves anything and everything that has wheels! If your toddler is the same, try these transportation crafts and activities.
12. Shredded paper
Messy play for toddlers that you can set up in a jiffy if you have a paper shredder at home. The only other essential is your messy tray or another suitable large container.
- Have two sets of toys to hand, for example, a bundle of dinosaurs and a bundle of Duplo bricks.
- Then, hide the toys amongst the paper, and your toddler will love playing hide and seek with the objects.
- Once all of the items have been found, sorting them into sets provides many opportunities to develop vocabulary. For example, ‘same,’ ‘identical,’ ‘pairs,’ ‘different’ etc…
Hand and eye coordination are developing rapidly at 1 and 2 years old so this type of activity will be incredibly valuable. It’s such a fun and simple messy play idea that’ll really foster your little one’s curiosity, while developing important skills.
If your little one is a lover of these prehistoric animals, we have more dino sensory play ideas here. We also have dinosaur arts and crafts here.
13. Ice cube tray messy play
Messy play for toddlers can also offer the chance to practice other skills, like color and letter recognition, while also creating the opportunity to help fine and gross motor development.
All with a simple egg box or ice cube tray!
Add pompoms and toddler-friendly tools for a messy play idea that’ll keep a 2 year old busy for quite some time, sorting and moving pompoms from one compartment to another.
Further the challenge by using pens to mark each compartment, and set your toddler on a mission to correctly sort the pompoms by color. Then count all the reds, all the yellows and so on…
14. Bottle tops messy play
An infinite supply of bottle tops makes for a simple and easy messy play idea for young toddlers. I’d recommend placing them in a large contaier or sensory bin, so they don’t complete cover the floor!
Use all different shapes and sizes, and your toddler can stack them, sort them, rummage and make a noise with them…. there are endless possibilities.
Start collecting now!
15. Oats or cereal messy tray
Another great way to improve hand eye co-ordination – dish up teddy’s breakfast.
In fact, this messy play idea definitely lends itself to a re-enactment of our favorite story: ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’.
- First of all, serve the dry oats or cereal, and make sure you lock the door to your cottage when you go for your morning walk in the forest.
- On returning, discuss which bowl is too large or too small, and which is just right.
- Next, add some containers and spoons – your toddler will be happy to play independently.
It really is as simple as that.
16. Magazine or newspaper ripping
A pile of newspapers and/or magazines is all you need to prepare for this dry messy play idea for toddlers – perfect for the destructive 2-year-old! (That’s probably all of them…)
If you’re using magazines, remove the staples, then just let them get ripping and tearing – the noise is where the pleasure lies.
Just be careful with little ones keen on stuffing everything in their mouth as the ink won’t be the healthiest snack. In this case kitchen towels would be a good replacement.
The ripped-up pieces are then perfect for dump trucks, diggers and rubbish trucks to play in (yup, even the rubbish gets reused in our house).
MESSIER messy play for 1-2 year old toddlers
Here are some more messy play ideas for toddlers 1 and 2 years old that aren’t as dry as the last, but aren’t super messy…
17. Frozen toy messy play
This fun frozen messy play idea can be enjoyed using any mini toys. It’s also fun to involve your 1 or 2 year old in the process of setting this one up, see photos below.
- Firstly, put the toys in your chosen container, and fill with water.
- Secondly, leave the container in the freezer overnight.
- The next morning, place the ice block complete with frozen toys in the messy tray
- Watch as your toddler witnesses their very own Ice Age phenomena!
- You can provide older toddlers with a spoon to chip away at the ice and a spray bottle filled with warm water to speed up the melting process
They’ll love retrieving their favorite toys or their dearest dinosaur.
There’s plenty of opportunity here to explore scientific vocabulary. Gasps of, “Oooh that’s cold!” are to be expected.
Some words and phrases to consider incorporating when engaging in the activity are: ‘Frozen,’ ‘melting,’ ‘smooth,’ ‘hard,’ ‘changing to water,’ ‘becoming a liquid.’
This has become a favorite outdoor activity in the summer when it’s hot. My older kids love it too and have contests as to who can rescue their toys first…
18. Sand box
Classic messy play for toddlers that uses an essential outdoor toy for toddlers: sand in a sand box!
Simply place some Playmobile people in the sand tray alongside some stones and a few leaves from the garden. Instantly you have created a new world for your toddler to enjoy, and their creativity and imagination can really run wild.
Since sand play lends itself to social interaction, this is a great opportunity for language development. What stories you could create!
Younger toddlers benefit purely from a sensory-touch perspective. They will likely find the feel of the sand intriguing and their confidence will flourish as they manipulate objects and mold the sand.
Kinetic sand is a very versatile sensory play material that can be great fun. It looks similar to regular sand but acts more like wet sand as it can be molded and can hold shape, making it an ideal material for messy sensory play.
Making your own is not complicated, simply mix flour into the sand, followed by oil in the following ratio:
- 4 cups sand
- 2 1/2 cups flour
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
Alternatively, you can of course purchase kinetic sand – there are lots of bright colors to choose from to add to the sensory experience.
It also makes a great gift for all those a kid’s parties – sand is such a wonderfully versatile material for dry messy play for toddlers.
19. Playdough faces
Playdough is such a fun material to explore and play with. From strengthening hand and finger muscles to providing plenty of scope for developing language skills, there are so many benefits to young children playing with playdough.
Older toddlers can help to make fresh playdough, offering the chance to discuss which ingredients have been used, and whether the flour or the salt is ‘heavier’ or ‘lighter.’
I love this no-cook playdough recipe as there’s no worry about burns on a hot stove.
If you’re hard-pressed for time, however, store-bought playdough does the job.
1 and 2-year-olds could add buttons and wool to create eyes, a mouth and hair. For the 1-year-olds, the process of creating a button moon mound is a success in itself.
Isn’t it wonderful that a box of buttons can be so entertaining?!
Add in a garlic press to make some fun squiggly hair. (We now have a dedicated playdough garlic press as it can be a bit tricky to clean up.)
Playdough spiders are also easily invented using pipe cleaners and googly eyes which is a particularly fun and easy activity for Halloween.
20. Moon sand (or cloud dough)
Moon sand is a little like kinetic sand in that it holds it’s shape quite well, so this dry messy play idea is pretty much the same as #18 above.
But moon sand provides quite a different sensory experience – it’s so soft and fluffy. Very touchable and completely irresistible to toddlers making it the ideal dry messy play idea for your 1 or 2 year old.
You just need flour and oil, any types will do, and mix together in a ratio of 8:1.
Then let your toddlers scoop with it, smush it through their fingers and just play. Add small toys and they’ll be in seventh heaven!
STICKY Messy play ideas for toddlers 1-2 year olds
Messy play for 1 year olds won’t get much stickier than this! Your 2 year old will love these messy play ideas!
Take playtime outside if possible. And take cover!
21. Play with oobleck
Oobleck is a sticky, stretchy and pliable substance like nothing else. It makes for really sticky messy play for toddlers! (You’ve been warned…)
To make it, mix 2 parts cornstarch to 1 part water. Slowly add the cornstarch, little by little, to the water, mixing continuously as you do. You can also add food coloring if you want.
You can add in toys or other items, but that will lengthen your clean up.
22. Squeeze-your-own-lemonade sensory bin
Simple lemony fun! And perfect messy play for toddlers in the warm summer months.
To create the squeeze-your-own-lemonade bin as pictured you’ll need:
- ice blocks
- yellow food coloring
- lemon/citrus juicer/press and other tools (slotted spoons, straws, and tongs)
- splash squeeze balls
Your child will love attempting to squeeze the splash balls in the juicer to squeeze the water out. Younger toddlers will probably enjoy doing this with their hands too.
You could also add some powdered lemonade or real lemons to increase the sensory experience.
23. Goopy grass messy sensory play
Another seriously messy messy play idea is this goopy grass activity.
It’s basically oobleck (as above) mixed with real grass!
So you’ll need cornstarch, water and grass:
- place grass in a large container or sensory bin
- mix 2 parts cornstarch to 1 part water to make oobleck
- mix the oobleck with the grass
One goopy, sticky, grassy, messy play idea that’ll keep 1 or 2 year olds busy busy busy!
Hand wipes, warm soapy water, towels and fresh clothes at the ready…
24. Aquafaba foam
Who’d have thought that water from a tin of drained chickpeas could make such a great messy play idea for 1 and 2 year olds? Well, inthesestilettos sure did, as pictured.
Simply beat the water with an electric whist until it thickens up into a foam like consistency.
Color it with food coloring and it’s time to get messy!
25. Finger paint on wax paper or aluminum foil
More finger (or hand) painting, but this time with non-toxic washable paint, on something a little more interesting than paper. Why not try painting on wax paper or aluminium foil, as pictured above?
Fun messy play and plenty of chance for your 1 or 2 year old to explore and experiment with new textures and materials.
For some simple projects where you might (or might not!) have a cute keepsake at the end, try these simple art activities for 1 year olds.
More messy play ideas for 2 year olds and up
26. Playing with eggshells
If you like a boiled egg in the morning, chances are your toddler will know all about hitting the shell and cracking them.
So save those eggshells, turn them upside down and place back into the egg cups. Now it’s your toddlers turn.
A great messy play idea for 2 year olds that can be incorporated into all sorts of dramatic play scenarios too.
My eldest daughter, pictured, loved this – look at that concentration! She then enjoyed serving various teddies their eggy breakfast.
27. Cocktail sticks and hammer
More messy sensory play that is best reserved for older toddlers with a little bit more coordination. It’s a little more destrcutive than other messy play ideas and will be right up the street of those that love to play and experiment with hitting and hammering.
That’s all toddlers in my experience!
All you need to do is stick a cocktail stick in each compartment of an egg box and supply your toddler with a toy hammer. The challenge is to hammer the stick down and through the cardboard.
You can design a similar activity for older toddlers and preschoolers starting on letter recognition. Write a letter on each pokey-up bit of the egg box (where the cocktail stick is in the photo above) draw letters.
Call out the sound and have your toddler search and hit it with their little hammer!
What are some additional sensory activities?
It’s true that nothing beats sensory play for young children. There are lots of additional messy play ideas for 1-2 year olds that you can explore, the world is your oyster!
Hopefully, this article has given you loads of dry messy play ideas from which you can build and has given you the courage to venture into messy play of the WET variety.
Even wet messy play for toddlers does not have to be particularly messy. A plastic sheet retained specifically for the purpose can easily be hosed off.
The most simple opportunity for sensory experience is meal times. In particular, your young toddler will naturally want to investigate food, which is a highly valuable learning experience.
It therefore makes good sense to encourage this and not worry about the mess too much.
Messy play ideas for 1 year olds can involve such easy-to-hand household items, and facilitate so much fun, you honestly won’t look back.
So start collecting and hoarding those random supplies for your sensory adventures, and while your stock builds, simply use what you have to hand.
We have more sensory play activities for you to try
There are plenty of extra ideas to chose from:
- 75 Easy Sensory Activities For 1 Year Olds
- DIY twist-top boards: fine motor & fun learning for toddlers
- 50 Best Activities for 18 month Old Toddlers
We also have activities that are themed to the season:
- 25 Fun Fall Arts, Crafts & Sensory Activities For Infants
- 25 Cute & Simple Easter Activities & Crafts For Babies 6+ Months
- 45 Cute & Easy Mothers Day Crafts for toddlers
- 50 Christmas Sensory Activities for Toddlers
- 25 Easy FAKE SNOW Sensory Bins
How can I encourage messy play?
The best way for you to encourage messy play is to get involved yourself. If your little one witnesses you getting stuck in with a tray of unknown delights, they will quickly follow suit. Allow them this opportunity as much as possible.
If your toddler is always interested in the tupperware draw, give them some of their own to play with. If they can’t help but put their fingers in the soil in the garden, provide them a sand tray.
You’ll quickly learn which type of sensory activities and messy play your 1 or 2 year olds just loves to get stuck into.
Are you ready to embrace messy play with your toddler?
We love messy play and all messy tray ideas! It’s fun and super easy to facilitate.
The use of sensory materials creates hands-on, self-directed and self-centred play, and encourages discovery and development. Sensory play helps to build nerve connections in the brain and encourages the development of language and motor skills.
Messy play supports your little one’s cognitive development: the ways they think, explore and figure things out. It offers your child a chance to figure things out for themselves.
Every time they solve a problem, they reinforce that ability and build self-confidence. Isn’t it amazing to think that sensory play actually helps your toddler’s developing brain build nerve connections?
Messy play also promotes fine motor skill development. You’ll also see your toddler’s gross motor skills improve. As a result, the foundations of their body balance and spatial awareness have been laid. It really is worth the effort.
Knowing how important messy play is for toddler’s early development means it’s SO worth digging out a baking tray, and starting the process of hoarding kitchen rolls.
Of course, tiny tots can join in too. Messy play for babies is just as stimulating and entertaining.
Remember, there is no end goal to messy play. The whole point is to let children explore the materials in front of them in whichever way they wish.
Whether you choose to join in, or allow independent play to unfold, your toddler will love the freedom that this style of play affords.
Enabling your little one to explore their interests will reap benefits later in life.
If you like crafting with little ones, why not bookmark these for later:
- Cute Valentine’s Day Handprint Craft (Free Templates)
- 50 Easy Easter Bunny Crafts For Toddlers
- 41 Easy Father’s Day crafts for 2 & 3 year olds
- 50 Fun Fall Crafts for Toddlers
- 55 Easy Christmas Crafts For Toddlers 2, 3 and 4
- 47 Cute Easy Christmas ornaments To Make With Kids