We all know the saying “don’t cry over spilled milk”, but imagine it’s a busy morning getting the kids ready for school, lunches packed, and breakfast made, all while still preparing yourself for your own day ahead. A gallon of milk on the floor in the midst of that morning chaos might feel like something to cry over if tensions are high. 

For many of us, watching a bottle of milk spill, a bin of toys get strewn across the floor, or a mug fall and crack into a million pieces feels like a problem that needs to be instantly solved. Unfortunately, this attitude may be at odds with the ways our children explore and learn through play. When your toddler takes a marker to the walls, or discovers how to open up the peanut butter jar, it doesn’t feel like fun for you, the person who will be cleaning it up. 

For many parents, this means that they are on high alert with paper towels at the ready when their kids want to get messy, cleaning along the way. For others it means that play with a potential for mess is an outright “no”. However, the reality of mess is that it is not necessarily an urgent problem, but an opportunity for growth for ourselves and our kids.

What Is The Benefit Of A Mess?

Getting messy involves two of our sensory systems, tactile (touch) and visual (sight) processing, to make sense of the experience we are having with a given texture. 

Tactile (Touch) Processing:

Our experience of changes in pressure to our skin through touch can be calming or alerting to our nervous system, and understanding the difference in ourselves and in our children’s bodies can help make sense of why getting messy either feels fun or overwhelming. For those of us that hate being tickled, hate the feeling of certain sheets or clothes, or can’t wait to take a shower after going to the beach, those changes in touch to our skin from those sensory experiences might feel overwhelming. 

Visual (Sight) Processing:

Our experience of changes in visual appearance of an object or a space can also be calming or alerting, depending on our individual preferences. Our sense of sight tells us so much about our world, and can help us quickly analyze a given situation. For those of us that can’t walk past a sink of dirty dishes without washing them, love to keep the hallway cabinets neatly organized, or notice a dust bunny from a mile away, a visual mess may feel overwhelming.

Despite these feelings of overwhelm that can be associated with these sensory experiences, learning to work through and/or cope with them is a big part of our developmental growth in childhood. Our tactile and visual senses are important when it comes to getting dressed each day, taking a bath or shower, brushing our teeth, eating a varied and nutritious diet, and even for using the bathroom. If our feelings of overwhelm are strong, then they may be a barrier to performing all of these daily tasks. Challenging our tactile and visual systems through exposure to mess, working through related emotions and sensations, and finding joy in the play aspects, can slowly but surely help these systems do their work to get us through the day.

Additionally, cleaning up a mess involves higher-level motor and cognitive skills such as motor planning and executive functioning, which are impactful upon school performance, home management, play skills, and forming friendships.

Recognizing Your Response To Mess

If you resonate with any of the examples of overwhelm above, you may also experience some differences in tactile and/or visual processing that can affect your response to mess. Do you follow behind every task to clean along the way? Do you flinch at the sight of paint on the table or marker on your shirt? If you notice heightened feelings of stress in response to these sensory experiences, chances are there are ways that this stress is externalized or expressed in how you deal with the mess. 

Take a moment to think about how you feel when confronted with a mess, and what you do to respond to it. How is this coming across to your child? What is being learned through how we convey our response to mess?

Recognizing your response to mess can help shift our mindset from #1 to #2, through self-reflection and practice:

  1. Messes are bad and need to be prevented or cleaned up right away. If not, something is WRONG.
  2. Messes happen when we play and when we make mistakes. These things aren’t bad, and we have the skills we need to clean up messes together.

The next time you are confronted with a mess at home, take a deep breath first, and then decide what truly needs to be done in the moment. Is there time later to clean it up as a team? If nothing is at risk of being ruined, stained, or broken, is this play still safe for your child? If so, try joining in and being a part of your child’s play experience.

Ways to Get Messy at Home

1. Start small with a water table outside. If you don’t have a water table, use a large, plastic tote or other bin for water play. Consider adding shaving cream, foam soap, dish or bubble soap solutions, or even paints and food coloring for added texture and visual stimuli.

2. “Paint” with shaving cream, either on a mirror or the side of the bathtub

3. Wash the car!

4. Do finger painting on paper, plastic tablecloths, or canvases

5. Sand bin play! Use leftover plastic water bottles and containers, or use sandcastle toys and scoops, to work on motor accuracy while pouring sand in the bin

6. Build mud pies and castles outside! As the weather gets warmer, use a bit of water to create your own small mud pit in the yard for sliding, building, and playing.

With all messy play, remember to keep your child’s needs and sensitivities in mind, as well as your own. If engaging with messy textures is hard, start small. Use small amounts of the medium, have wipes and towels at hand, and introduce touch with utensils like paintbrushes, spoons, and q-tips before introducing touch to the hand and body.