A Fine Mess
By Mimi Greenwood Knight
Nancy Williams of Dublin, Georgia, never imagined any child could be messier than her son Max. That is, until Michael came along. Three-year-old Michael (or Pig Pen, as she affectionately calls him) makes Max look like a neatnik. “He never met a mud puddle he didn’t like,” she says. But Nancy doesn’t sweat the small—make that sloppy—stuff. “Michael’s got the rest of his life to have his shirt tucked in and his face clean,” she says. “Right now it’s my job to let him be a kid.”
Turns out Nancy’s instincts are right on target. It’s normal, even healthy, for preschoolers to make messes. In fact, getting down and dirty isn’t just exciting for kids this age, it’s enriching too. Here’s why a little tolerance on your part can yield big benefits for your child.
In Touch With The World
Two- and 3-year-olds gather information by seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching things. “If you describe an object to your child, she may quickly forget the details. But if she takes it apart or squishes it between her fingers, she’ll remember,” says Bev Bos, director of Roseville Community Preschool, near Sacramento, California. “If something hasn’t been in a child’s hands, it’s not going to be in her brain.” In other words, certain messes are memories in the making.
What’s more, “if you scold your child or whisk him away to get washed up every time he makes a mess, he may feel as if you’re telling him not to play or learn,” warns David Fassler, M.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont’s College of Medicine, in Burlington. Giving your preschooler a chance to investigate the world on his own terms—even with his nose in the dirt—shows you support his curiosity.
Of course, you don’t have to let your child wreak havoc whenever she wants. “Parents need to set limits,” affirms Sue Spyeth Riley, founder of the Open Door School, in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It’s fine for you to say, ‘We’re going to have some fun with clay today, but we’ve got to keep it on the kitchen table and not roll it on the floor.’”
It also makes sense to establish a specific area of your home for messy exploration. Try setting up an art table where your child can feel free to use her crayons or to shred paper, or designate a corner of the patio for playing with water toys or scribbling with chalk.
Some parents have the opposite problem, however. Instead of struggling to maintain some semblance of order, they have to convince their child to make a mess. Blame it on sensitivity—the squishy feel of finger-paint, for example, or the grittiness of pebbly soil can be a turnoff at first.
If you kid doesn’t like getting his hands dirty, introduce him to the joys of mess-making gradually, says Lisa Murphy, author of The Ooey Gooey Handbook. Try making some “ooblick”—a mixture of equal parts corn starch and water that has both solid and liquid properties—and offering your child a spoon so he can play with it without direct contact. Soon, he’ll probably toss the spoon aside. “he may just need to get used to the idea,” Murphy says.
Once you’ve given the message that messes are okay, it’s time to convey another: that cleanup inevitably follows. “Children need to know that straightening up is part of playing and can be fun,” Bos says. “You need to model the proper behavior.”
Break up chores into small jobs. Your child may not be able to seal her tubs of Play-Doh and return them to their shelves, but she can help gather up the dough and put it into the small containers. Don’t expect her to do all the work or even most of it—you can wipe her shoes clean after she jumps in a puddle, and just have her put them by the door to dry. You’ll help build her confidence and bring playtime to a neat end.