There’s no doubt about it – small children certainly love getting messy! Child development experts are now telling us this is an important developmental stage we ought to encourage…. But why?
Covered in it
Until they reach the age of 3 or 4, we seem to spend the whole time wiping them up! Have you, like me, been worried that we will be judged for being neglectful if they appear in public covered in yuck? And we all try to find the washing powder with the ability to remove the most stains, don’t we? So what is the purpose for all that mess?
Recently I started looking more closely at this fascination with messy play. I had heard it was vital for brain development and so something one must allow (with gritted teeth and a blind eye to the kitchen being trashed) in case one stunted their creativity… or something.
Why do they like wading gleefully through puddles, making mud pies, getting covered in paint and plunging up to their elbows in papier mache? When I last made papier mache with school kids, we never actually got to make any models, the kids were enjoying themselves far too much just squishing around in it! In fact one of my most popular activities at the after school club was the day we had a Gloop Competition. I divided the kids into teams and gave each team a set of ingredients: Flour, water, liquid soap, oats, cornflour, salt and food colouring. They mixed everything up in various combinations and then went round judging their friends’ creations for the grand title of Most Glorious Gloop. The winning criteria was the gloop mixture that felt the most irresistible. And these weren’t toddlers; the average age was eight!
As I began to do more art and baking activities with the kids, I began to really enjoy it and totally understood where they were coming from! The breakthrough moment came as I supervised a toddler doing finger painting one day. He swirled the paint around, getting great squishy lumps of it all over himself, the table and some on the paper. He informed me he was making a slug. A daddy slug! I suddenly realised he wasn’t talking about the image on the paper but the tactile feel of the slimy paint between his fingers. He picked up a little blob of paint, stuck it to the paper and said in a squeaky voice, “baby slug!” The feel of the paint reminded him of the feel and look of a slug! It is an adult concept that art has to be representational. Art for small children is all about the creative, tactile process. He experienced his world directly through his senses, primarily the sense of touch. It was clear he was making brain connections through what he felt with his fingers.
When baking, I now always let the children mix with their hands so they can really make a connection with the materials. It’s not about the cake they’re making – for them the joy is in the goop squished between their fingers, and the bowl they can lick out afterwards. They need to physically explore everything, in order to really understand how the world works. Once they have thoroughly explored a new substance or object, they are then ready to work with it as a means to an end rather than as a process in itself.
They’re not being ill-mannered when they blow bubbles in their drinks or make patterns in a puddle of soup on the table. They’re experimenting with the physical properties of materials in their environment. Water, mud, paint, sand, jelly, soup, flour, all have different properties that have to be investigated so that brain connections can form and enable the child to relate to the physical world.
Encouraging Sensory Play
So for a few years, just let go of your preconception of a perfectly clean and tidy home and remember that children NEED sensory development and it WILL be messy, but glorious too! As well as mud, leaves, water, sand and other materials found in the natural environment, I have a couple of favourites!
Jelly bubbles, or water beads, are small grains of water-absorbent substance that swell into squishy marble-sized balls when soaked in water. All children find them irresistible! Here we are mixing and comparing lentils AND jellybubbles!
Jellybubbles go extremely well with ducks or sea creatures!
Another wonderfully calming sensory activity is a tray of small seeds. I find flax seeds and lentils are most irresistible. Rice is slightly spiky, so use rounded seeds. Every child I have put a tray of seeds in front of is instantly hooked and can’t stop feeling the wonderful flowing texture. It is amazing at calming down hyperactive, anxious or restless children.
We take this very basic information about how stuff feels for granted, since we cannot remember a time when we didn’t know what paint or cake mix felt like. But the child is just beginning! The getting messy part is merely a side-effect of the necessary exploration of his world. It is his baseline, the foundation of a lifetime of discovery. If you allow him to enjoy this messy stage, it will help him to always enjoy learning, and become spatially confident in his environment. In a few years he will build on this experience to start using materials in constructive, creative ways, and phase in other ways of relating to his environment… and you can enjoy having a clean kitchen again!