Messy Play

All Hail Loose Parts: Guest Post by Alex Smith of Playgroundology

All Hail Loose Parts: Guest Post by Alex Smith of Playgroundology

Our guest blogger today is Alex Smith, the founder of the CanadaPlays Association and the award winning blog PlayGroundology. Alex has been working with a small team of volunteers over the last 3 months to prepare Pop-Up Adventure Play’s visit to Halifax.

‘Loose parts’ skirt the edges of nirvana. Ask any kid. Now they probably won’t call them ‘loose parts’. They’re more likely to use the generic and all encompassing ‘stuff’ prefaced by cool, awesome, or great. It might even go the way of ‘this stuff is epic’.

Wood, rope, tarps, tires, milk crates, cardboard boxes, fabrics. PVC pipes, pallets and all manner of scrap materials can make up a loose parts inventory. Kids take them and create. They build up and pull down. They improvise, they move, groove and PLAY!

Gardening with Kids in Halifax

I've always said if I forget to feed something and it doesn't bark, meow or cry, well, it's gonna die. The evidence is in many sad green things that have entered my house alive and thriving and exited my house to rest in peace in the forest behind our backyard. I'm not proud and I want to change.

I've been trying my hand at container gardening a few vegetables because food is motivating for me - I'm just more likely to remember to care for food than a flower. Mind you, it doesn't mean I've had a lot of success with it. Last year I had the kids help me plant some vegetables but then I didn't move them to shelter during some torrential downpours and basically drowned everything. Whoops.

This year I used the guise of my Family Matters column to seek the advice of a local Master Gardener and got some great tips. I also found out about an awesome free seed exchange program at the Halifax library branches and picked up our free packets. Score! We're all set now and are going to get planting this weekend. Wish those poor little seedlings luck . . .

Container Gardens and Car Washes

I think it's finally safe to say the overnight frost is gone for this season and we can start our summer garden! We have various foliage around the house that came with it (and that my husband tends to) but I like having a little vegetable garden myself. Since we have a wooded area behind our house there are lots of little wildlife friends like deer, rabbits, pheasants, and squirrels who would make short work of a veggie garden so we plant one in containers on our second level deck.

Last year was the first time we tried it with varying results. The cherry tomatoes were our best success - and our favourite - so I got a few of those plus some regular tomatoes, celery, broccoli, and cucumber - and we started our container garden.

Miss M, naturally, asked to wear her gloves and Mr M, naturally, just dove right into the dirt. I was smart though and dressed them both in clothes that they didn't like/were too small/had holes so that no one had to worry about their favourite outfit getting dirty.

The kids scooped dirt from the bag into the containers with their shovels and then we added the plants. I was surprised how eager they were to do it and how they didn't tire of it even though we had three large round ones and one long rectangular one.

Gleeful fistfuls of dirt!

Gleeful fistfuls of dirt!

By the time we got to the last container Mr M was off with his trucks but Miss M was still working hard. Partway through filling this one she got a glint in her eye, peeled back her gloves, and then tentatively dug her hands into the fresh dirt in the bag. I smiled and encouraged her to do so and that was all she needed. The rest of the container was hand filled with a dirty, happy, little girl - perhaps I don't need to worry so much about her aversion to getting messy! She seems to be adapting well to the new rules.

Our "green" garden with celery, broccoli, and cucumber

Our "green" garden with celery, broccoli, and cucumber

When we were done planting I swept up the dirt and then brought out a bucket of soapy water, a couple old scrub brushes, and some towels and let them have a little Car Wash for the vehicles we keep on the deck. Trucks were scrubbed, and then the barbecue was shined, deck chairs were soaped up, and the kids ended up soaking wet.

Workin' at the Car Wash (and YES, I know we need to paint our deck

Workin' at the Car Wash (and YES, I know we need to paint our deck

It was the perfect post-planting activity as it got the rest of the dirt off the deck and got them relatively cleaned up before we headed back in the house (though, if I'm to be completely honest, I did send them right to a warm bath to scrub the rest of the dirt out of their fingernails and hair). :-) 

Here's hoping our little garden produces some food for us. I love snacking on freshly picked veggies!

Have you done a container garden on your patio? Do you have any tips to help it along?

Bless this Mess

Last summer I took the kids to a Messy Party that a friend hosted. It was, as it sounds, a party created just to make a big mess. She had tons of activities set up around the place that were goopy and slimy and all-around good messy fun. Miss M was almost three at the time and Mr. M was almost one. He was in heaven and crawled and squished his was through the messiest of parts. Miss M didn't get more adventurous than the cloud dough and the wading pool full of clean water (for washing off the "mess"). Not surprising, she's always been hesitant of messes - getting paint on her, even getting food on her, is cause for alarm.

She comes by it honestly. Neither myself or my husband are fans of messes either. I do see the value in it though and understand the freedom, especially as a child, that comes with making the biggest mess you can, just because. Within messes are usually learning experiences, socializing, and fun.

I was at the playground yesterday with another mom and her kids and we decided to go for a walk by the lake. Her kids immediately asked if they could put their feet in and, once permission was granted, their socks and shoes were gone and they were splashing in the water and squishing in the mud. Miss M hesitantly watched for a moment then waded in herself, the giggles expanding as she felt the mud between her toes and the water start to seep into her leggings, although carefully holding her dress above the water line. Meanwhile Mr. M was sitting in the water tossing rocks, apparently testing how much lake water his diaper could hold before he started to float.

I watched her follow her new friend around and become bolder as she saw her have fun with messy play. She eventually let her dress drop into the water and soaked and muddied pretty much everything on her. I swallowed back any cautionary calls and smiled and told myself it was fine, there was a towel in the car for the dog and they could get back in the car naked if they had to - our house is only a five minute drive away.

When it was time to go we brushed off their feet, peeled off the wettest of their clothes and they walked barefoot through the grass back to the car, delighting in being grubby and messy. And it made me happy to see them enjoying being kids.

So I now declare this the SUMMER OF MESSY PLAY (shhh, I haven't told my husband yet). I am going to push my own boundaries of mess in the hopes my kids, particularly Miss M, push theirs and start creating those messy memories they deserve. After all, what's the point of summer as a kid if you can't enjoy playing in a dirt pile, stomping in a mud puddle, or finger painting in the sunshine.

What's that they say? Please excuse the mess, the children are making more work for, I mean, memories.

Now, I'm off to stock the car with old towels, change of clothes, and add extra laundry detergent and stain removers to the grocery list...

Little Blue Truck Goop

Little Blue Truck Goop

Little Blue Truck is a favourite in our house and this activity that recreates the big scene where the big dump truck get stuck is always a hit - no matter how old the kids get! Goop is a really cool concoction of cornstarch and water that seems to defy the laws of physics. It looks like liquid but you can pick it up and make it into a ball, which then turns back to liquid.

Easy Preschool Art Activity Inspired by Mix it Up!

Doesn’t it seem like every time you carefully choose gifts for your children, something that seems completely random ends up being the big winner (like the bubble wrap in a box for Mr. M). My parents got the children a book called “Mix it Up!” by Hervé Tullet. We were all completely charmed by the simplicity of the book and the interactive elements. It encourages the children to “mix” the colours together and when you turn the page it shows them what happened. They shake the book, tip it sideways, and Miss M’s favourite part, squish their hand onto a big mess of paint and then turn the page to see “her” handprint there.

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We’ve read it several times and she always delights in the imaginative elements of moving the book around and using her fingers to mix the colours. She’s never been a kid who liked to get messy so I didn’t really consider moving the experience into the real world. Then today happened. Today we were stuck inside as both the children had the sniffles and, frankly, we were all going a little stir crazy. It was a hit - and, best of all, super easy! 

Here’s all you need to do a Mix it Up painting with your children - you likely have just about everything already in your house!

I recommend that you read the book together a few times so they understand the concept of colour mixing, and some ways to do it. It took a few reads before she started remembering what colours made what.


  • Pure white heavy paper or a smallish canvas. We used an old piece of Bristol board I had from another project and quickly chopped it into four rectangles. Commercial finger painting paper would be good too. You just don’t want to use printer paper or newsprint as when they rub paint on it the dampness may tear a hole in it.

  • Five small paintbrushes – large ones grab too much paint and will make it hard to see the results of the mixing.

  • Bottles of red, yellow, blue, white and black paint. We used Elmer’s Washable Tempera Paint. Even though Miss M is a pretty responsible three year old and not a fan of messes, the washable is still a must (especially with Mr. M around).

  • Five empty baby food jars. I used these for pouring a bit of the paint into. They fit perfectly in the lip of our Step 2 easel; they're high enough so that the paintbrushes don’t fall out; and when you’re done you either wash them out for another time, or pop the cap on and save the rest for another day.

  • It’s ideal if you can use an easel so they can get a good big picture of their work as they go but a table would work well too. Just make sure you use a drop cloth and smocks to prevent a big mess (hmmm…wonder where Miss M gets her disdain of messes from…)

  • This kind of artwork is perfect for the type of parent who doesn’t consider themselves much of an arts n’ crafts type of person as it’s very self-directed. I spent my time running back and forth between her and Mr M rescuing him from his own artistic "efforts" (i.e. chewing crayons).

Simply give them the supplies and let them go. If they seem hesitant you can encourage them by talking about what they did in the book and even showing them pages of it and asking them to imitate it. You can suggest they try choosing a colour and making a dot, and then adding another colour to that dot. Once they see the“magic” they will be keen to start exploring on their own. You can always grab a piece of paper for yourself and let them follow along with you until they’re more comfortable.

I was amazed to watch Miss M (with absolutely no prompting from me) start making circles and combining colours just like in the book. I was surprised that she didn’t just mash them all together as she usually does – she was doing her colour mixing very intentionally and imitating what she had seen in the book.

Mixing it Up!

Mixing it Up!

After she had done several shapes of colours I added black and white to the options. In the story they’re used to show how to make lighter and darker colours and how to mix them to create grey, and she did all of those activities.

I was momentarily distracted by Mr M swinging from the rafters, and when I returned to check on Miss M she was counting slowly to five with her hand pressed against the paint just like she does in the book. Let me repeat that for you – HER HAND WAS PRESSED AGAINST THE PAINT!!

This is the child that hates getting maple syrup on her fingers while eating waffles, or insists on washing her hands five times in the course of gluing something on a picture because she hates getting dirty. But she got all up in that picture and tried several handprints and then she actually started finger painting and had a grand time.

The final masterpiece

The final masterpiece

She did a second piece of art and when they were done we added them both to our Art Gallery in our Family Room. Click here to see how to create an Art Gallery of your own.

Family Art Gallery

Family Art Gallery

I have to admit, it looked so fun and created such a cool piece of art that I may do one of my own tonight – and I might even get up the nerve to put my own hand on it too…

Have you read any art books with your children? Have you been inspired to try to recreate the art in it with them?