Get over the mess? Yes, I get it. It’s my nightmare, too. I cannot stand messes. Everything has a place, it should stay there. But developmentally for children, making messes is important. In fact, messes inspire creativity.
I may hate messes, but I LOVE creativity.
Most of the more meaningful moments in my room happen when my buckets are spilled over, my blocks are scattered around the room, all my sand toys are dumped into one sand tray. In essence, the most meaningful learning have been the messes. Check out my Preschool Animal Hunt article, which talks about a moment just like this.
The moment we let go, children begin to engage in creative play. We take away rules, and allow them to explore. There is truly no better way to stay in the “here and now” moment than to watch children play creatively during a messy activity.
Most times, children think of messes as “off limits.” They are scared of getting in trouble and hold themselves back. When you look at a mess as an opportunity for creative growth, children feel that and become less anxious about things being “just as they should be.”
Innately, children love making a mess, but are taught that messes are bad, are anxiety ridden, are a cause of time-outs. Messes are made for children. They are made to help them growth and develop.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of playing with your child . . . I won’t go into the importance of allowing children to play in their messes . . . but instead how to keep you, as parents, from going insane when your child decides to make a mess.
1. Find a good place for the mess: Messes do NOT have to happen inside your house. I can hardly handle having a summer camp in my classroom let alone if my entire house was up for messy play. Confine the mess into a baby pool, on a paint tarp, over newspaper, in the kitchen, on your patio. Set rules for WHERE messy play can happen, as opposed to eliminating messy play or setting rules around how the play can unfold. Contain the mess, not exploration. This leads to number 2 . . .
2. Don’t be afraid to set JUST a few limitations: They are children. They cannot run amuck in your house, they do need limitations. Find what you are uncomfortable with and set limitations around it. Painting must happen in the kitchen. Sharpies must be used outside. We won’t use the dining room table for any play. When something gets ruined, and inevitably something will, try not to be upset about the “thing” and reflect on the creativeness of the play. Set a limit to the behavior, and make that limit a non-negotiable so that you aren’t uncomfortable with that type of mess later. And interestingly enough that leads me to tip 3!
3. Messes should never be punished: Making the mess is part of their learning, creative development, and is enhancing their motor and coordination skills. Messes develop patience, self-control, clean-up, reflection, and many other things. Clean-up can be a source of teaching, not scolding or lectures.
4. Be engaged yourself: Messes become overwhelming for adults when you allow children to play on their own without your guided support. The mess can get quickly out of hand if you are not there to help them glue, or control how much glitter is coming out of the bottle, how to keep the paint brush near the paper, etc.
5. Be mindful, and just relax (as best you can): If messes really stress you out, like they do me, use this as an opportunity to be mindful. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, get yourself focused on the present. Acknowledge that you are worrying about how you will clean this all up, about what might get ruined, and remind yourself that thoughts are not your reality, what is happening right NOW is your reality. That means your child is having fun, they are exploring and learning, and spending time with you, that is your reality.
If you are religious, say a few prayers. Let go and let God.
It’s just glitter. It’s just paint. It’s just mud. It’s just water. Everything can always be cleaned up, no matter the mess.
6. Do it anyways: Even if you hate it . . . let them do it anyways. You have to remember by not letting them play or make messes, are you fulfilling your need or theirs?