The Value of Messy Play

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Have you ever wondered what your kids are doing when it’s all too silent? You just know that it can’t be good, whatever it is. For parents, silence may be golden, but more often than not, it’s pandemonium waiting to ensue.

You walk around the corner to see that they’ve gotten into your lipstick, or they have your favorite wrench. Maybe they got their play-doh. Or maybe they really are playing quietly with their favorite toy or reading their favorite book.

Now, in your immediate distress, especially if you recently scraped crayon off walls, or if you were about to walk out the door, you classify the lipstick, wrench, and play-doh as misbehavior. I mean, after all, they know better and damn, you really are sick of cleaning up messes.

But let me offer a different perspective. The lipstick, the wrench, and the play-doh are all modes of play. Most likely, your child is not intending to misbehave or even make a mess. Children, especially toddlers and children younger than seven, have a hard time with impulse control. Their little eyes see your lipstick and they automatically want to pretend to be you. She sees the wrench and she sees the firehouse you built. He sees play-doh and he sees possibilities. At the moment they see their new toy, they have a need for fulfilling their creative energy. Their imagination is so vivid while they tackle writing and acting on a new story that they literally forget they are supposed to ask permission.

In this moment of discovery, their brain is lighting up, creating new neural pathways, and framing the world around them.  Pretend play is a child’s way of creating understanding and constructing their own views and learning. It provides them space to explore different sensory opportunities (who doesn’t love the way play-doh feels???).  Most importantly, their sense of wonder is cemented.

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“I just want to look like the Joker!”

Now, in a modern world, how do we reconcile letting our kids explore while also creating boundaries for our stuff/space and for the sake of cleanliness?

  • Let your child/baby lead in play
  • don’t overthink how to play-pretend, create, move. Just being with you stimulates them and ensures no messes!
  • create a space in your house that you don’t mind gets a little messy. Equip it with surfaces easy to clean. You can do this permanently or temporarily with wax paper.
  • purchase clearance makeup for the kids who can’t stop doing makeovers.
  • label his/her toys and reiterate “this lipstick is _____/yours”. It’ll take some time, but eventually they’ll get it.
  • shop different websites for high-quality toys & more.
  • make some toys together out of old paper towel rolls, boxes, etc.
  • identify your children’s needs and preferences. Join local groups for further play. For instance, my third child gets into everything. I eventually realized she feels satisfied by sensory play, hence the cups of water, playing in mud, coloring on walls…so we put her in a weekly art and science class.
  • Have a chart visible so you can keep track of how often messy play takes place and have your child mark the days with a sticker.
  • be clear about what is permitted and what is not. It’s always great if “no’s” can be kept to a minimum, but sometimes circumstances don’t allow for any messes, and that’s OK! Have clear and consistent consequences.

We are still learning here at the HH-we’ve got some messy kids, but if you have questions, post in comments!

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2 thoughts on “The Value of Messy Play

  1. How would recommend getting kids excited (or at least motivated) about cleaning up said messes. That is the trouble here. Thank you for the blog, it’s great!

    1. Thanks Elizabeth for commenting! There’s a couple of things you could do depending on age and personality.

      1.) For ages 3 and above, explain beforehand that in order to play, they must help clean. Give them two options, “you may wipe the table” or “you may throw the garbage away”. Really, for kids younger than 6-7, you’re going to be doing the bulk of cleaning! But, it’s important that they begin the habit.

      2.) you could make a game of it for little one and big alike. So you could challenge them, “how fast can you pick up all the purple and blue paint?” Or “let’s take score of how many times we reach our garbage goal (like a basketball hoop!”

      3). You could sing songs or pretend they are a character from their favorite books or shows. For older kids, just put on Pandora and let them clean at their own speed.

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