Learning is Messy

The adult in us wants to stop the mess, pick it up, put it away. We want to tame the “wild” behavior, put limits around the child, stop the chaos. We can’t believe the amount of mess that was just created in the very short amount of time our child was exploring.



Wait. We want our children to explore, become independent, build curiosity. Learning is messy.

Messy learning is a rite of passage for children, it’s essential, and will move our children in the direction that is needed for the future. Young children don’t see the difference between “play and the rest of life.” Children see their time as that of exploration and curiosity, and as they play and incorporate their senses you have some messy learning on your hands.

Children that are exposed to richer textile learning are more likely to development high vocabulary language development and cognitive abilities. They are building their sensory profiles, social relationships, and mathematical concepts. They learn about cause and effect, and become kinesthetic or hands on active learners.

Messy learning allows children the freedom to be creative, and build their social emotional development and whole body or self as they continue to take the lead of their learning. These characteristics are what will build our future leaders-children that tinker and aren’t afraid to leave the traditional silo of learning will thrive in environments where they can be collaborative, socialize, and be messy without disapproval.

Messy learning includes jumping in puddles and playing in the rain, freedom of painting (on paper and self), making mud pies, planting, mixing playdough or slime, and getting stains on clothes. It doesn’t include unhygienic environments that are not safe for children.

As parents we have this fear that if our child is found in dirty play clothes we will be judged, and criticized. It’s hard to break the thought that messy play means a child is filthy. This stress causes us to think that all dirt is full of bacteria, and reflects negatively on our parenting. This mindset stops the natural exploration of a child and their environment. It stops that essential of messy play which blocks learning.

In our community there are so many places to explore and be messy with your child. Play in the wet sand at the beach, take a stoll barefoot in the grass, play in the leaves, jump in the puddles, pick up the leaves and look for insects, set up a mud kitchen, paint with more than your fingers, make some slime. Allow children to help you make dinner and mix ingredients, feed themselves, wash the dishes, mop the floor.

It is essential for children to make a mess. Relax and smile as you watch your child take ownership and control of their messy learning. Nothing feels better than some paint between the toes.

Holly Karlsen is the mother of two adventurous sons, advocate for early childhood education, the administrator at Next Generation Learning Center, and an adjunct professor at West Shore Community college.


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