Mess is an
essential part of childhood. Living in a small urban homes or a rented
property – as is the case for many city dwellers – can make messy play
stressful and cause it to be avoided. Also, it is easy for parents to feel
that people will criticize or judge if our child is seen wearing dirty
clothes, or if our homes are less than pristine and spotless. Fear of
bacteria can also contribute to a degree of paranoia about dirt.
When we talk about
messy play, we aren’t referring to unhygienic living standards or toys
strewn all over the house. We’re talking about activities such as jumping in
puddles, making mud pies, painting, sand play, clay molding and play dough.
especially young children, need to explore their environment with all their
senses. Children learn primarily through play, so combining their need to
play and their need to explore often results in a mess. This can’t be
avoided and we would do well to remember that a degree of mess is part of
life as a child and not something to become uptight about.
incorporates rich textural experiences allows children to express their
emotions through manipulating the materials (clay, paint, sand) and refines
their sense of touch. The richer the textural experiences, the richer their
cognitive and language development will be – how can a nine-year-old grasp
the concept of “slimy” if he has never touched anything “slimy”? They also
learn about cause and effect (mixing colors, pressing too hard on your play
dough sculpture) as well as size, shape and many other concepts. Messy play
materials should encompass different temperatures (cold, warm, tepid),
textures (rough, smooth, wet, dry), scents, appearances and locations.
children see no line between “play time” and the rest of life. For an
infant, every waking moment is dedicated to exploring and learning. Babies
and toddlers love to make food and eating a whole body experience at times,
smelling, tasting, squashing and throwing their food. While it can be
inconvenient to clean up, and discouraging if you have spent time lovingly
cooking a meal, this food play is a normal and important part of childhood.
If mess is always discouraged, a stressful relationship can develop between
parent and child as well as a future avoidance of messy play (even when it
is offered), which can lead to a diminished sense of touch and potentially
limit cognitive development.
Messy play isn’t
limited to indoor play, however. Dirt, sand, leaves and water are all great
messy play materials. But what do you do when you don't have a backyard or
other outdoor area to utilize? Most large cities around the world are
coastal or on a major river or lake, so there are often natural waterways
and beaches to explore and get messy in. National parks, state forests,
fields, meadows, parks and creeks provide a range of free opportunities for
play with different messy materials such as bark, sand, water, rocks, dirt,
mud, shells, leaves and sticks.
There are other ways
to make messy play accessible closer to home. Think of the outdoor spaces
you do have access to – a courtyard, balcony, garage or shed. Is there a way
you could utilize this space for messy play such as painting, even
temporarily? Could you do some container gardening, or collect natural
materials from around your home?
You can also
make messy play less stressful inside the home. The “wet areas” of your home
–typically with hard flooring and wall coverings that are resistant to water
– such as kitchens, laundries and bathrooms can provide easy-to-clean
opportunities for messy play. A plastic drop sheet or an old sheet
underneath the child and materials can protect carpets and furniture.
Confining messy play to certain areas (play dough only on the kitchen table,
water only in the bathroom) can also help to make messy play a workable
activity indoors. Having aprons, “play clothes” or one set of clothes that
can be worn during painting, play dough and mud activities can lessen the
stress that can occur when precious clothes are stained.
If you still
can’t bear the thought of allowing your child to play with play dough or
paints inside the house, cooking can be a great opportunity for textural
play that isn’t quite so messy. Kneading dough and moulding biscuits, bread
rolls or cookies can incorporate creativity and the sensory experience, but
it can never replace the full experience of messy play in all its options.
Take up any opportunities you can for group messy play where you don't have
to worry about the clean up – such as playgroups, art classes etc.
Nothing can replace
the fun and learning of a childhood filled with messy play, but children
living in urban environments need not miss out on this essential group of
Parnell is a wife, mother and homemaker who lives in Australia. She and her
husband Mark have three homeschooled children – Zoe, Reuben and Rhiannon.
She enjoys reading non-fiction, cooking, writing short articles, making
their small living space a home and being a present mother to her children.
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