The science and joy of making a mess

The science and joy of making a mess


By Sarah Johnson/The Parenting Place

Little kids and messes.

Well, they’re kind of a package deal.

As adults, we all have different levels of tolerance for messiness, but in general, we like it a lot less than kids. We dislike it so much that we sometimes go to great lengths to prevent children from making messes, especially big ones or ones that take a long time to undo.

Think for a moment, though, what might be behind those kid disasters.

A little person who puts both hands into a bowl of oatmeal then dumps it out and spreads it around her high chair tray isn’t just a messy eater. She’s experimenting with texture, learning whether that gooey stuff feels the same in her mouth as it does on her fingers, and if it looks different when it’s out of the bowl.

A kid who takes every single toy out of his toy box and spreads them around the living room might not be indecisive. He may, in fact, be using a very thorough decision-making process, setting everything out to find the best-suited item for whatever it is he has in mind next.

The point is that messiness is one more way kid brains are different than adult brains. Messy play tends to engage many senses, and it is one of the most effective ways kids learn. Even we adults generally learn better by doing than by being told. By touching, listening, tasting, smelling and looking, kids become little scientists every single day and it doesn’t cross their minds to limit themselves the way adults often do.

That’s not to say limits are bad. We need to help the oatmeal eater figure out how to use a spoon, or she won’t be welcome at many tables as she grows. The toy spreader needs to understand that his process might be fine, but cleaning up when he’s done is expected.

The trick is to balance the needs of both the kid and adult worlds. First, cut the kids some slack and acknowledge that they’re not doing this to make us crazy or because they’re misbehaving. We can let them make messes when time and setting allow for it and nip it in the bud when it really matters.

When there is time, we can even encourage the mess. One of the absolute best birthday parties my family has ever been to was a friend’s “Messy Party” when he turned 4. Instead of bringing a gift, partygoers were asked to bring something messy – flour, oatmeal, shaving cream, Jell-O and more were graciously offered and accepted.

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The birthday boy’s parents supplied things like spoons, spatulas, buckets, measuring cups and paintbrushes, and then the kids were let loose outside. You have never seen a more engaged, enthusiastic group of preschoolers and toddlers. There were a few rules, like no throwing messy stuff at people (especially the adults), but in general it was a happy free for all.

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Luckily, our friend has a warm-season birthday, as an inside Messy Party might not be such a good idea. But with a few strategically placed plastic pools in the yard and a good hosing off at the end, everyone and everything was cleaned up quickly.

A Messy Party may be an epic, rare-occasion mess. But fun little opportunities for untidiness abound in everyday life.

On a rainy day, put on boots and go stomp in puddles, or, even better, in some mud. Go beyond finger paint and make hands-on art with pudding, colored non-toxic glue, and anything else gooey or drippy you are willing to stick your hands into. Look up “sensory play” or “messy play” online and you will find practically endless ideas.

Throughout these experiences, talk and ask questions about what’s happening. This is a great way for kids to learn descriptive language and new vocabulary. Try out some simple science concepts as you go. Why do you think the water splashes when you jump into the puddle? Why does the paint look different when you spread it thicker or thinner?

Try not to guide the play too much, as part of the learning and most of the fun comes from experimenting and seeing what happens. Comment, engage and enjoy yourself. Kids are definitely onto something when it comes to making a mess.

Sarah Johnson is a mother and coordinator of The Parenting Place.

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