Yes to the Mess: Why Kids Should Get as Dirty as They Want

I was never one of those kids who enjoyed getting dirty. When my mother would try to set me barefoot in the grass, I would pull up my feet to avoid touching it. I would cry when food, mud, or other slimy, sticky, and gross substances got on my hands or face. And I just couldn’t stand to be dirty.

I fell off the cleanliness bandwagon during my teen years when my bedroom became a disaster area. School papers, drawings, poems, books, clothing and all sorts of other angsty accoutrements literally blanketed the floor. My mom freaked on a regular basis. But I eventually grew out of that phase and came to my senses (at least somewhat), and rediscovered how decluttering, organizing and maintaining a clean home reduces my anxiety and helps me think more clearly.

Fortunately for me, my only child seemed to be born with an appreciation for order and cleanliness. She thought scrubbing the floor, dusting the furniture and vacuuming the carpets was entertaining. When I wasn’t quite systematic enough for her, she would take everything out of the pantry and organize them by category, size and shape.

I never had to hound my girl to clean up or discard things she had outgrown. She was consistently leaps and bounds ahead of me.

Eventually, she grew up and had her own baby who is all boy. Frogs, snails, puppy dog tails...the works.

When he eats peanut butter toast (his favorite breakfast), he licks the peanut butter off the bread, which ends up as a sticky coating from nose to chin, not to mention his hands and, not infrequently, his hair.

Bath time means a drenched floor, splattered walls, and a soaked grandmother. Don’t even get me started about outside playtime.

Why I Say to the Mess

I’ve found his passion for exploration and life in general that results in these varied and comprehensive messes, downright inspirational. He motivates me to embrace the stickiness, splashes, and muck that accompany a life full of adventure and excitement. On top of that, I honestly can see that messy play is good for him:

  • Opportunities for mess-making spark his senses. He touches and engages with the things around him on a whole other level. The sensory play draws him in and moves him along discoveries that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. And don’t forget about the health benefits of messy play like playing in the dirt.
  • He’s developing fine motor skills and dexterity. Whether he’s digging in the mud or fingerpainting, he’s working out his hand muscles – and hand-eye coordination – which will be useful for writing, drawing, building and a whole host of other activities.
  • It gives him the time and space to be creative. There’s definitely a fun element to messy play that’s much more satisfying than following the instructions on a craft kit. In these little moments, he gets to create and grow, learning from his own trials and errors along the way.
  • Along the same lines, messy play reduces anxiety. It’s a creative outlet and there’s freedom in exploration. There is no right and wrong and perfection doesn’t exist. There’s only joy in the process of mess-making.
  • At the same time that my grandson has that invitation to create, he knows there are boundaries as well. You just can’t color on grandma’s walls, for example. Knowing you can create a mess within boundaries helps kids exercise self-control so that they have room for expression without the need to rebel.
  • Finally – and contrary to what you may think – it teaches them responsibility. After all, if you make a mess, you have to clean it up. The good news is, for kids, that’s half the fun. Smearing mud all over the place and hosing it down, splashing around in a bubble bath and mopping up suds….the mess-making and the clean-up both feel like play. And we make sure to make them both rewarding.

How We Keep Mess-Making A Regular Activity

We’re always on the lookout for fun ways to get messy. When the weather is warm, we pull out the water table and kiddy pool, “paint” the patio with big brushes and pots of water or dig up a new garden plot. If I plan ahead, I freeze a handful of plastic toys in containers of water so that he can excavate the playthings using age-appropriate tools or his favorite method: the water hose. We also freeze paint and create with them as the melt under the sun. Paint brushes aren’t only tools we work with either, we use straws to blow paint around, cut up fruits and vegetables to stamp and print, pick leaves and branches to make our own unique paint brushes.

When we’re stuck in the house, Grammy has a few other tricks up her sleeve.

I keep a set of drawers stocked with art supplies in the kitchen. He knows that he can find everything from playdough to finger paint to glitter glue at the ready. Sometimes I will find a kid-friendly project online and we craft to our heart’s content. Other times, it’s a free for all; and he can create anything he can dream up. We even purchased an unfinished wood farmhouse table for the kitchen so that nobody has to worry about messing it up (we look at the “stains” as memories of a childhood that will pass much too quickly).

Plastic storage bins are perfect for makeshift indoor water play. Floating toys, funnels, and other kitchen utensils help time pass quickly. While one result might be a saturated floor, another outcome is a tired and happy kiddo. We build forts, make slime, and cook together.

I still prefer to have a “place for everything and everything in its place.” I am a huge fan of bins, baskets and other organizational containers to keep things orderly and tidy. But I have also found the joy in the feeling of grass tickling my bare feet, mud on my hands, and his sweet, sticky kisses on my face. There is definitely something to be said for making messes.

What are some of your best memories getting down and dirty with the kiddos? Share your stories with us!

Tags : confessions   development   educational play   

Tania Mashti
We've become so overprotective of everything! I don't even buy my kids nice threads. I'd rather they be out playing in the mud than strain-free but stressed!!
Carrie Gunther
I absolutely love this! I just wish there was more time in the day for actual play
Amy Mori
I love seeing my daughter dirty. That's the sign of a very good day!