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Messy Play…It’s Important

April 13, 2016

Gathering into tiny chairs, on rugs and stationed at the edge of a large piece of butcher block paper, they laughed and talked and immersed their hands in materials. At the paper they explored with stamps made from apples and trays filled with white paint. Around tables they played with shaving cream, dough and dirt. On the rug there were acorns, pinecones and sticks of various lengths and thicknesses – all collected on neighborhood walks and visits to the community garden. Tonight the my students weren’t ages 2 – 5 years old, but rather their parents and caregivers. It was curriculum night and parents were experiencing how we educate at Bija. Getting messy is important. 

After a decade as the director of my school, I realized that for parents to understand why we value play so highly, specifically open-ended, messy play, I had to give them a chance to experience it for themselves. What exactly constitutes messy play? One of the beautiful aspects of this concept is that the answer can be broad and varied. Essentially, messy play is time for a young child to explore freely. Paint, dirt, water, charcoal, sand, leaves and dough. Buckets, bowls and a bathtub. Left to their own devices, with safely selected items, children can simply do as they choose and if no one interrupts their experience, they will most certainly get messy and dirty. Why is this so important for kids? Messy play is sensory play. Sensory play engages us in ways that keep us present, ask us to solve problems and be flexible in the moment. It soothes the nervous system and creates space for creativity. Messy play is unstructured and requires participation. In essence, it creates experiences for growth in the ways that young children need. It helps them to develop a love for learning and have the skills to continue to do just that.

three little girls drawing with gouaches on paper

Let’s face it, most Brooklynites live in small spaces. Spaces that require strategic maneuvering just to fit cribs and bookshelves when children become part of the household. I’ve seen parents nearly reduced to tears when I suggest that they begin incorporating messy play into their daily routine. But it doesn’t have to be so scary! Get your child started in places that are made to get messy, such as the bathtub or the kitchen.

Think about your own messy play boundaries. As you are introducing messy play opportunities to your child, make sure to be clear about the restrictions of where they can practice messy play and for how long. Explain that participating in cleanup is a part of messy play. If your child is younger than 18 months, explain these aspects as you model them. Then let the messy play begin and resist the urge to restrict your child (within the limits you have already created) or to clean them as they go. Some children will naturally be excited about getting messy while others will hesitate. If they hesitate, show them. Show them how good it feels to immerse your whole hand in a jar of paint or to smear cornstarch and water around on a table. Do this especially if you are fearful of getting dirty yourself! Allow them space to explore at their own pace and in their own ways. There is no way to ‘get it right’ in messy play. Introduce new ways to get messy, and give them time. Observe what unfolds. Use these times to turn off electronics. When possible, enjoy messy play in natural settings such as the beach, in the woods or at the park.

cute little girl is playing in muddy puddles

If you’re afraid of messy play consider your favorite childhood experiences. Just this morning, I realized that one of my favorite activities as a kid was to collect shells on the beach. It had been many years since I walked the length of the ocean with my eyes focused on the sand. But today, as I did so, I realized the great calm that I felt searching with my hands, washing shells, examining their colors and shapes and digging my feet in the sand. This is messy play. It’s wet and dirty and requires self-directed motivation. The outcome is uncertain and it lasts for as long as time permits or attention runs out. It’s fun and it’s soothing. It’s the stuff that inspires us and helps us focus. Recollect and bring your meaningful experiences home to share it with your child. Embrace the uncertainty, even if it means a little dirt! Clean up together and begin the process again.

Some places to begin:

While cooking dinner, fill the kitchen sink with soapy water. Provide your child with containers, funnels or pots and pans. Alternately give them sponges. After several experiences they can use this time to learn to wash dishes.

Create a designated art area on a desk, table or in a demarcated section of the floor. Allow this area to stay messy within its bounds. Provide your child with paper, crayons, markers, charcoal and stamps. Water, paints and brushes can be added when your child shows you they can respect the parameters of the messy play area.

Make play dough with your child from scratch. Provide them with tools to interact with the dough such as cookie cutters, corks, spoons, popsicle sticks and recycled items.

Involve your child in cooking and planting processes. Domestic chores are a great place to get messy and learn to enjoy hard work at the same time!

Make bath time playtime with bathtub paints, containers, funnels and bubbles.

Enroll your child in a ceramics class, forest school or farm-based program where there is an emphasis on experiential learning and understanding of the value of getting dirty.

In a world where most everything is scheduled, even for those as young as two years old, messy play is a chance to just be. Learning to be, teaches children to cope with the here and now, a life skill that will carry them through situations of boredom, confusion and even happiness. To me, this is what education is about. Learning how to live in the world and learning how to do it in a way that feels good. Messy play is an important tool in this process.

To learn more and ask questions, join Lauren for her workshop on Messy Play on Sunday May 22 from 3p – 5p. Register at HERE.

Back in 2005 while teaching yoga and dance in public and independent schools, Lauren Maples became interested in why there was such disparity between successful and happy learning environments and those that struggled. Through inquiry and observation, she developed the Bija approach which strives to create a fulfilling and engaging educational experience that’s grounded both in the real world and with an eye towards the future. Her personal passions for food, art, sustainable living, social justice, and connection are interwoven in the daily experience at Bija. After ten years and many iterations, Bija has found its own voice in the world of progressive early childhood education.

Lauren has danced with internationally acclaimed ballet companies including San Francisco Ballet and New York City Ballet and holds a BA from New School University. She is a 200-Hour Registered Yoga Teacher and licensed as an Ayurvedic Therapist from the Ayurvedic Hospital in Coimbatore, India. Lauren is currently completing her Masters in Early Childhood Education at Bank Street College. Bija currently operates schools in Brooklyn and Beacon, NY.