Much has been written about the benefits of Messy Play. It is great sensory stimulation for young minds discovering a hands-on world, and it develops strength and fine motor coordination in those curious little fingers. And that's all great, except for one thing. There's more to it than that.
Now, most parents intuitively understand that kids come with a certain amount of mess and adopt a quiet, tolerance towards it. But when you've got the mop out taking care of your end of Messy Play for the third time today, it can be frustrating. So I thought it might be helpful for you to understand just why all that mess is so important, in hopes of bolstering your Messy Play resolve.
So let's start with some basics...
WHAT IS MESSY PLAY?
The traditional definition of Messy Play refers to different kinds of sensory materials that children use with their hands. The list looks something like this...
Fun Foods like Jellies, Jams, Peanut Butter, Jello, etc.
Soap, Bubble Bath, Bath Foams, etc.
Dry Baking Ingredients such as Flour, Sugar, Grains, Oats, etc.
And on and on.
Pretty much Messy Play materials are anything that can and will travel to places wholly unrelated to the designated play space and often show up weeks later despite the most vigorous and vigilant clean up.
However, my definition of Messy Play is a little different.
And a lot messier...
MORE MESS IS BETTER MESS
Tactile, sensory experiences with materials like these are so vital to your child's developing brain, why stop at the wrist? In fact, I recommend WHOLE-BODY MESSY PLAY whenever possible.
You see, as we've discussed in previous blogs, the brain learns from the experiences the body provides. Sensory stimulation is the key to early learning, helping the brain craft its own unique picture (and judgments) about our world. When your child is fully immersed head to toe (or at least elbow-deep), sensory receptors in the skin are complimenting all of her other senses in developing that "full picture" the brain needs, while giving her a better sense of herself as well.
And while the mess is molding your child's brain, it's doing a whole lot more too...
FINE MOTOR MESSINESS
Back to the hands for a moment. Think about the last time you had a blob of Play-Doh in your hands. Chances are you couldn't put it down -- squeezing it, shaping it, poking holes in it, pressing it through your fingers, etc. The very nature of Messy Play is a call to action for the fingers, working the tiny muscles to build strength, endurance, and coordinated movements. This, in combination with core and upper body development, is where young hands form the ability to carefully manipulate a crayon, a pencil, pen, keyboard, piano keys, guitar strings, slide rules, etc.
CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO MESSINESS
What does clean feel like? As an adult, my guess is that you would describe it something like this. Let's use the hands again as an example...
"Clean is when my hands don't feel sticky, gooey, gravelly or chalky... when there is no dirt or stains on my skin or under my fingernails... when my hands don't smell of anything other than soap or lotion... when I feel comfortable touching something precious (or white) or shaking someone's hand." In other words, clean is what's NOT messy.
So consider this. How can your child be expected to understand clean if she doesn't have meaningful experiences with messy?
Now, this is where parents get really nervous. "Messy" is one thing. But put it in the same sentence with "Mania" and that's where most will draw the line. But if you know the old saying, "In for a penny, in for a pound" you know what I'm talking about. Getting messy is like a license to get even messier. And when "messier" happens, something else kicks in. The exuberant freedom Messy Mania provides from the everyday expectations of conformity and neatness is a great emotional release for children.
But more, within these playful confines, children learn an important life lesson about what it feels like to go too far. And while I realize that may sound a bit scary to parents too, your child needs to explore all of her boundaries -- even, and maybe especially, the messy ones. You see, playing with those boundaries with things like mud in your hair or sand in your shoes or snow down your back gives children tangible, physical experiences with the idea of "too far" that they will be able to apply to other, more important situations down the road.
And for the clean up crew, let's be honest. There comes a point where there's pretty much no difference between "messy" and "messier."
THE POWER OF MESS
The ability to effect change is one of the most important learning experiences for your young child. When she discovers she can make a difference -- large or small, accidental or deliberate, neat or messy -- she is awakening to the idea that she has the power to do things herself. And Messy Play is a dramatic expression of that power because she's seeing big changes of her own making as she physically transforms herself and the space around her.
I'll admit, the mess at the end of your mop is no fun for you. But remember, it's a mountain full of skill and confidence building for your little one.
THE AFTER MESS
Which brings me to the last, and perhaps most important benefit of Messy Play. When your child observes or participates in the clean up she is learning from you how important it is to respect her environment. By seeing the transformation from messy back to neat, she is learning that she is part of something bigger than herself -- your family -- and she's right at home where she belongs... AFTER she takes a bath!
Messy Play extends right into the bathtub! Soap suds and bath foams, gels, and creams offer great, whole body, Messy Play sensory experiences too. Now add one more element, and you can turn bath time into learning time.
My daughter and son-in-law have been playing this bath time game with my granddaughter since she was an infant. Now at age two, she already has a sense of left from right, and demonstrates good body awareness.
The key to this simple, "Talk A Bath" activity is consistency. Each night as you're washing your child in the bath, talk to her about the different parts of her body. Be specific, and associate what you're saying with what she's feeling as you use the soap and bath cloths to get her clean. For instance...
"This is your right elbow. Let's get it nice and clean."
"And your right elbow is part of your right arm."
"At the end of your right arm is your right hand."
"Look, you have five fingers... one, two, three, four, five!"
And so on.
And so on.
Repeat the game when you're drying off with a nice, warm towel. This gives her a different sensory experience associated with the words you're using to describe her body.
And when she's getting her pajamas on, play the game one more time. The soft fabric of her pajamas gives her another different physical sensation as you reinforce body awareness with your words.