Messy Play Ideas for 1 Year Olds

Looking for messy play ideas for 1 year olds? Check out these activities, from sensory bins to edible play, perfect for this age!

Messy Play Ideas for 1 Year Olds

I started to notice that my son loved to explore with his hands, whether it was splashing in the tub or digging them in the sand.

I didn’t mind the mess too much, so long as it was fairly reasonable to clean up (or if there was a way to prevent a big mess to begin with). You see, I understood the benefits of messy play, especially since it allows kids to learn through their senses without worrying that they’re doing something wrong. By “allowing” them to play this way, they can explore unencumbered.

Below are some easy play ideas that lean on the messy—yet fun—side. Hopefully, you can find several ideas to try with your little one:

1. Play outdoors

I’m a big fan of getting kids outdoors, whether it’s to kick a ball around, explore nature, or get messy with their hands. Are you planting a few plants in the yard? Pour some fresh soil into a bucket so that your 1 year old can play with it. (You can even add some water to make mud for a different texture.)

Raking some leaves? Gather a few in a small pile that he can walk on and show him how to crinkle the dried ones in his hands. Pulling some weeds? Enlist his help in pulling some, too.

And take a trip to a nearby nature outing. He can play with endless sand at the beach or explore the outdoors on a hike. There are so many outdoor activities for 18 month olds that can keep your little one occupied.

Outdoor Activities for 18 Month Old

Free printables: Out of ideas on what to do with your little one? Join my newsletter and grab your printable calendar of fun and simple play activities! Check them off as you go along, or use the blank template to add your own ideas. Get it below—at no cost to you:

1 year old activities

2. Edible play

One concern we’ve all had is that kids this age love putting things in their mouths. And while supervision is key, you also don’t want your child to put something potentially toxic or that he can choke on.

A simple remedy is to use food items. That way, it would be edible if he happens to put it in his mouth. Here are a few ideas:

  • Jello dig. Place small plastic toys in a bowl and pour Jello inside. Once it sets, he can dig into it.
  • Paint with yogurt. Squeeze a few drops of food coloring into different bowls of yogurt and mix. Then, have him use his hands to “paint” on a large baking sheet or high chair tray. You can also do the same with whipped cream.
  • Make homemade play dough. While nearly every play dough is non-toxic, you can still make your own with simple recipes like flour, salt, oil, cream of tartar, and food coloring.

3. Water play

Playing with water can be so much fun! Avoid huge messes by picking appropriate spots, from out on the patio to the bathtub. You can even dress your child in a bathing suit if you expect her to get really wet. Here are a few activities to get you started:

  • Pour water. Place a large bowl on a baking sheet. Then, fill a measuring cup with water, and have her pour it into the bowl. Refill the measuring cup until your bowl is full.
  • Have a “car wash.” Add soap to a bowl of water and use a washcloth or brush to wash toy cars (or other water-safe small toys).
  • Squeeze water from a sponge. Fill a bowl with water and show her how to squeeze water out of a sponge. Stick to sponges without a rough side for easier soaking and squeezing.
  • Play with ice. Fill a bowl with ice and let her explore as it melts. She can even take chunks of ice and toss them onto the plants (this is perfect for emptying coolers of ice after a party!). You can also add food coloring in ice cube trays to have different colors.
  • Add lemons and limes to water. Place slices of citrus inside a bowl of water. She can handle the fruit slices and smell their unique scents, too. Another option is to add strong-smelling herbs like rosemary.

4. Sensory bins

Dig your hands into different textures! Sensory bins are great for messy play by keeping it contained. Yes, your child might spill grains of rice, but this can be simple to clean up if you lay a large trash bag below the bin. You can also play outdoors, where messes aren’t as noticeable.

Dried beans or rice, kinetic sand, or slime, are a few materials to fill sensory bins. Add small toys for imaginative play or a game of hide and seek as well as small cups and spoons for scooping.

Check out these fun and easy sensory bins for 1 year olds.

Sensory Bins for 1 Year Old

5. Use household items

Messy play doesn’t have to be about slime and sensory bins. You can have fun with items in your house as well.

For instance, use cardboard boxes and use them to make tunnels and forts to crawl through or as a place to scribble crayons or use finger paints on. Make a game where you hide particular toys (like blocks) within a room and your child has to find them.

Collect junk mail and show her how to crinkle them with her hands, or  cut them into smaller pieces to practice gluing onto another sheet.

Check out these 20 sensory activities for 1 year olds.

18 Sensory Activities for 1 Year Olds

6. Finger painting

Finger painting is a fantastic way to encourage curiosity and imagination. Bring out finger paints that your child can mix and apply onto a large sheet of paper or flattened cardboard box. You can pour a few globs of paint onto a paper plate, and he can use his fingers or a brush to make art.

Worried about the mess? Do this activity in a room with easy-to-clean floors, and dress him in a smock or even just his diapers. Bathe him soon after the activity so he doesn’t spread the paint elsewhere. And use large sheets of paper so he has less chance of painting beyond the canvas.


You can have plenty of messy fun without the headache of a massive clean up! Playing outdoors combines hands-on activities with the benefits of being in nature. Edible play like a Jello dig and painting with yogurt make for safe (and yummy!) activities.

Splash in the water like having a toy car wash and playing with ice cubes. Dried beans or kinetic sand are great additions to sensory bins. Finger painting encourages creativity, while household items can be reused for play.

No more doing the same things every day, friend! Now you can have some messy play ideas—without the massive clean up afterward.

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1 year old activities

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