How to Be Down with Messy Play and Keep Your Sanity

by Meghan Fitzgerald

High fives to everyone who lets their kids make a mess, and actually enjoys every minute of it. We celebrate you during this Creativity season! We also wholeheartedly cheer for the parents out there willing to admit that they don’t actually like messes; and for those who are all for it, but whose kids really don't love messes.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I myself am not always gung-ho for messy play, even though I know full well how valuable it is. Although the “Go for it, kiddo!” voice is loud in my head, there’s often a, “Do we have to do this here? Now?” voice in there, too. 

And at the end of the day, your feet should be dirty, your hair messy and your eyes sparkling. — Shanti

Mess-making is undeniably good for kids. For most kids, it is joyful and wildly engaging. Messy play supports the development of their senses, which is critical for learning about the world and brain development. The freedom and inherently open-ended nature of messy play helps build creativity. Getting the go ahead to make a mess and push boundaries also helps kids build a sense of self. So, how can we be true to our feelings about the less desirable parts of messy play, but still give our kids all of its benefits? 

We have a few ideas….

First, practice makes you better. 

The more kids play messy, the more you and they’ll get used to it. I can’t promise you’ll ever get perfect at embracing mess, but it gets so much easier the more you see how well kids respond to it. And remember, even though kids can get really dirty, they’re quite well designed to wash down and get clean again.

Embrace the mess, but set boundaries.

Photo: Jennifer A. Johnson, Cahoots Media 

Photo: Jennifer A. Johnson, Cahoots Media 

Beyond practice, embracing mess can come down to doing two things at the same time: showing kids that we understand their drive to make messes while also teaching them that there is a time and a place for everything, including making messes. 

It's okay to say, "Oh, let's not get the mashed potatoes all over the dinner table. This is dinner time. But, let's fit in a little mud play before bath time. Sound good?"

This is actually a really powerful combination, as well as a valuable opportunity to communicate an important message to our kids. We are essentially saying, “We believe that what you are driven to do is valuable, and we support you in that. But, we are going to do it on a few terms that work for both of us.” When you think about how the world works, this may just be the best preparation we can give our kids. We make them feel understood and empowered, but we also help them to learn that there are limits. With those both in place, they’ll be unstoppable!

To make this all a bit more concrete, we worked with our amazing Tinkergarten community to identify the most common challenges to embracing messy play (for parents and kiddos) and some easy ways around them:

The clean up kills me. 

If the mess itself is what gets in the way, move the play to a place in which mess-making just makes sense. The perfect mess-maker studio is, of course, the great outdoors. Not only does outdoor play keep nearly all of the mess outdoors, but it comes with all the materials you need to get nice and messy. When outdoors feels like it’s not an option, try the bathtub or kitchen—any place in which it’s easy to wipe or hose down the scene after the mess-making subsides.

You can also ease into messy play by using clean-up time itself as a means to messy play. Give kids some extra time in the tub with bubble bath, shower cream or even just plain water. Allowing kids to go a bit wild at bathtime can give them the sensory stimulation and freedom that we associate with messy play, in a way that doesn’t involve getting “dirty.” It’s a perfect compromise for those of us who crave cleanliness.

I’m all for it, but my kiddo doesn’t like messes.

Kids need experience with messy play, too. Every child’s sensory system is different, and for some kids messy play can be a sensory overload. It can be helpful to envision each of us with a unique sensory “cup” inside. Kids with a big cup take in a large amount of sensory stimulation in order to feel satisfied. Those with a small cup require very little; and if there is too much stimulation, their cup overflows and it becomes overwhelming. If a child is uncomfortable or reluctant, do not push them. Instead, look for ways to give them a comfortable entry point into messy play.

Here are a few techniques that really help reluctant kids get the most out of mud play—the highest form of messy play to us!

  • Warm up the senses: Help your child prep their sensory system before messy play. For example, before you start playing with mud, rub your hands together for a minute and welcome your child to do the same. This primes a child’s sense of touch, smoothing the transition into messy play.
  • Use tools: Have lots of other objects like sticks, leaves, pine cones, etc. around to use as conduits to the mud. Feeling how a stick sinks into muddy earth is quite sensory-stimulating and a great way to experience mud without direct contact. 
  • Form the mess: Make mud dry enough to form into balls. More predictable shapes and forms are easier to control and not as overwhelming.
  • Water, water, water! Play with water a lot. Water is familiar, “clean” and often a much more palatable material that is still wonderfully stimulating to the senses.

It’s unhealthy to get dirty.

There is mounting evidence that interacting with dirt is important for healthy development. Research points to a “hygiene hypothesis” that connects the rise in autoimmune diseases with our overuse of antibacterial soaps, as well as to children’s lack of early exposure to the natural organisms that live in dirt -- these natural organisms help them build the defenses they need to avoid disease later on. 

Photo: Summer Miles

Photo: Summer Miles

Tip your toe in the water...or mud.

If your house and yard are already messy play zones, bravo! If they aren’t yet, it’s time to stretch a bit. You can do it! No matter how you feel about messy play, get your toe in the water and give some of these techniques a try. Then, share your best messy play moments with us using #Tinkergarten. We can’t wait to cheer!


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