Oh don’t mind me. I’m just listing a few of the many non-food items that my toddler has eaten in his mere 20 months of life. And if you think those are bad, I’m here to tell you-he’s eaten WORSE.
But today I want to talk about children and mess. Because I want you to know that I’m a bit of a control freak. Just ask my very patient, easy going husband. I’m a FREAK. Hey, I own it. I’m workin’ on it, ok? Nothing has stretched me MORE in this area than having a very busy, very independent, very emotionally assertive toddler. Honestly, he’s been all those things since he was born. But the things he gets himself into and the monumental amount of mess he can make in a day, let alone in 10 minutes IS INSANE.
As a former ECE, I’m used to what young children are capable of accomplishing in terms of getting messy but the difference is that we had to control much of what they were doing. We couldn’t let our classroom descend into total chaos. But as a mom, I basically get to decide what my son gets into and how chaotic I let it become.
The other day I was at this indoor playground watching my oldest run around like a total hooligan, stealing people’s snacks (I stopped him from doing that) and being a general wild child. I started chatting with a few moms who were sitting in the infant area with their very sweet, well behaved babies. We got onto the topic of mess and kids. I casually mentioned how I let my son play in the mud and how he eats dirt. I kid you not-both moms GASPED and looked at me in utter horror. One mom said, “Oh no no no! I do NOT let my daughter do that.” You would’ve thought I said I let my toddler play with matches and gasoline, with the way they reacted. It was a good thing I didn’t tell them about the time I set my own backyard on fire when I was 12 years old.
Mess is normal. It’s developmental and it’s IMPORTANT to let kids get messy. Does this mean your house has to look like a dumpster fire? No.
Let’s dive into three reasons why it’s important to let your kid (s) make a mess AND how to minimize total chaos.
- Children are kinaesthetic (tactile) and spatial learners. This means that they have to touch, move, carry, throw and physically experience what they are doing in order to learn. SOME children do not like to be wet, sticky, cold or touch things with texture. I was actually that child, surprisingly. (Or maybe not surprisingly because my control freak tendencies started early?) But more commonly, you will find that children learn by using all their senses and their whole body. They’re learning how to use their senses. They’re learning temperature, texture, how to manipulate objects, building fine (and large) motor skills. I watched a fantastic video of a friend’s toddler the other day, eating yogurt. He was a mess, spooning yogurt into his mouth, sucking on his spoon and using his whole body to enjoy his food. I LOVE THAT. The learning possibilities are endless when you allow a child to get messy. This is a really important from a developmental standpoint.
- Children learn responsibility when making a mess. It’s up to you as the parent to teach your child how to clean up or that his actions have consequences. It takes FOREVER to teach (sometimes force) my toddler to put away his toys. He’s also learning what is appropriate to throw and what isn’t. We don’t throw in the house. We are teaching him that we don’t throw things at people because it hurts. But outside, I’m the parent letting my kid throw rocks and wood chips, as long as it isn’t at or around someone else. I’ve been frowned at for that one but #sorrynotsorry. What happens when a child dumps water on themselves during water play? They get wet! If they’re ok with that, why not let them? If they aren’t ok with it, you can say; “When you pour water on yourself, you get wet!” When my son eats dirt out of his sensory table he makes this hilarious face because I know it tastes weird. I tell him that dirt isn’t for eating but I don’t freak out. I know it won’t kill him and trust me, he’s eaten far worse. His dirt eating is lessening each day!
- It’s not about you. Remember how I shared earlier that I’m a control freak. Yeah, you have NO IDEA. My poor family. I’m getting better. There have been times when I’ve totally crushed my babies’ adventurous spirits because I wanted to control the mess. I’m not proud of those moments. I have really limited their learning experiences at times and frustrated us all! In 15 years, what will I think when I look back on this season? Will I remember how I had to be in control all the time? Or will I fondly recall the fun that we had together as I created a safe space for them to grow and play in? It might be hard to hear those things if you struggle with control, like me. I don’t like myself when I’m trying to control everything. You can have a good balance of mess and order. If that sounds impossible, hang in there and continue reading.
Ok so we’ve talked about a few reasons WHY it’s important to let our children make a mess. If you’re sitting there curling your toes and cringing as you think about your home descending into total chaos, just hang on! It’s possible to create a space for your children to get messy AND still maintain a sense of order.
- Limit materials and STUFF. Basically, keep it simple. Don’t have a billion toys out at one time. Do you have a kid who just DUMPS toys everywhere and then moves onto destroy another part of your house? It’s because he’s in sensory overload mode. I invested in some baskets that are shallow enough for my son to see into, while they are on his toy shelf. I also practice toy rotation. I organized all his toys and materials in labeled bins in his closet. I rotate a few toys out during the week. If you keep things simple you may experience fewer tantrums and more enriched play!
- Have simple boundaries with what your child is allowed to do with the materials you provide, especially when doing sensory play. When I bring my son’s sensory table inside and fill it with something, I don’t let the material leave the table area. He is learning that things like water STAY in the water table and no you can’t dump water on the cat. If we’re outside, I’m more lax about this but I still don’t let him go bonkers. Then I take it step further and show him a few things he can do with the materials. After that, I let him experiment. I’m always impressed with what he does with the materials I provide.
- Choose age appropriate materials and toys. This is so important from a developmental and safety viewpoint. You don’t want to give your oral toddler materials they can choke on, right? There are a bazillion age appropriate ideas on the internet. You choose things that are easy to loosely supervise. I have a 6 month old. I can’t be hovering over my son the entire time he’s playing. Simple simple simple!
I am not super mom. So don’t be feeling all guilty over there if you are overwhelmed by all of this. I didn’t start doing a lot of this until recently because I had a baby 6 months ago and his brother is only 14 months older than him. Life is busy to say the least and I’m just now feeling like I have the energy to put these things together.
I’m going to be sharing some of the fun sensory things I’ve been doing with my babies, in an upcoming blog post. But a really great place to start is by going outside and letting your little one experience the outdoors with their whole body. Start there and see where things take you.
What is the messiest thing your child has ever done? Can’t wait to hear some great stories!