Children explore the world using all their senses. This is how they learn, and it often results in mess. Free, messy, unstructured play has loads of benefits, including:
- Developing confidence and independence.
- Honing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
- Practicing problem-solving and planning skills.
- Increased concentration.
- Experimenting and developing a scientific mind.
- Learning about cause and effect.
- Messy art projects allow kids to express themselves, refine their sense of touch, learn new vocabulary, and be creative.
- Increased appreciation for, and knowledge of, our environment.
- Physical health and fitness.
- And, if you’ve ever seen a kid immersed in messy free play then it’s impossible to deny the happiness it brings them.
Many of these things cannot be taught in a classroom. So, no matter how impractical it seems, surely we owe it to our kids to make time for real play. No matter if you live in a small house, no matter if you have no backyard, no matter if your mother will comment about your kid looking like they haven’t had a bath for two weeks! Let’s make it happen!
Now don’t get me wrong, I hear you that it can seem too hard sometimes. I’m all for ways to make it easier. But limiting their play choices to only those that are clean and tidy is not one of them.
How to make the mess of real play a little more manageable
- Change your expectations. Having children is going to be messy, it just is. Gone are the days of sparkling floors and windows without sticky hand prints. Expect mess!
- Celebrate mess and what it means. Dirt, paint, toys on the floor, glitter permanently trapped in your carpet…all these things tell the story of a day of fun and play. Children learn through play, and the more you get comfortable with letting messy play happen the more freedom your children will feel, and the more benefit they will get out of it! Embrace mess! It is a sign of fun and learning.
- Set some boundaries. Let your kids know where it’s ok to make mess, and where it’s not. They will have the freedom to play without you worrying they’ll end up painting the TV. In our house, you are free to create art whenever you like, but it is done in the playroom or outside. Watercolor paints and play dough are ok for inside, but poster paint and clay are for outside.
- Buy washable art supplies. Sometimes kids get caught up in the moment and a lovely picture gets drawn on a wall, oops! I only purchase washable art materials in case of this scenario.
- Be prepared. If you know things might get messy, prepare beforehand, e.g. if the kids want to paint, have a bucket ready to tip all the used brushes and cups into when they’re done, a tub for washing hands, and an old towel.
- Have play clothes. Save the good stuff for special occasions and let the kids dress in clothes you’re happy for them to get dirty. Most things will wash out, and if it doesn’t, who cares, it’s just going to get dirty again anyway.
- Pack spare clothes. And maybe a towel! Or have a bag always in the car for spontaneous messy play when out and about. We once went out for breakfast and the kids ended up having a swim at the beach in their clothes. It was unexpected and messy but they had the best fun so I’m glad I was prepared and didn’t have to say no to that.
- Join in. Dip your toes in the mud, do some painting, build a sand castle. And then all pile into the shower together after. Get amongst the mess, real play is fun for adults too.
Real play is about letting kids be kids, and embracing the messy moments. It’s about letting them play freely, without restriction. This is beautiful, messy, joyful, real play and learning. It’s only dirt. But it’s so much more.