Even parents of the most rambunctious children feel self-imposed pressure to keep their homes tidy. But experts say that a bit of mess can lead to leaps of creativity in children. Here are simple ways to embrace -- and even encourage -- kids' creative messes.
Why Messes Matter
We all want to raise creative, out-of-the-box thinkers. But in order to get started, we sometimes need to let kids dump those boxes on the floor -- and strew the contents throughout the house. And that, of course, can be hard on moms and dads who are trying (often through gritted teeth) to keep some semblance of order to their homes.
What Messes Mean
But experts tell us that those fistfuls of noodles against the wall and upended containers of glitter are actually crucial discovery times for children.
We've all seen toddlers in high chairs throw their cup on the ground and expect Mom or Dad to pick it up. And when they get the cup back, it's only seconds before they throw it back down -- and this time, the lid to the cup falls off, and juice is everywhere.
While games like these may exasperate Mom, this really is a learning time for kids -- they're beginning to understand cause and effect, and that they can attract attention to make themselves part of situations -- it's a way for them to assert this feeling of "I matter!"
Many times, dumped toy boxes and rolls of toilet paper that are now unrolled on your bathroom floor are kids' own tests of how strong or smart or creative they are. And sure, these actions are sometime ways to test Mom and Dad's patience, too, but that's also an important time of self-awareness. Some kids learn and begin to accept limits best once they've pushed (or, crossed) them. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a few mud pies in the living room to learn that.
Embracing the Mess
There are ways to allow kids to get messy, dream big, and learn lots without relying on paint-with-water books.
Start saving newspapers now! Cover the floor under play tables with newspapers, reusable tarps, even plastic garbage bags sliced at the seams.
Take the mess outside. Not only does this keep kids from mucking up your kitchen, but it also gives them room to get really creative (read: messy). Try these ideas:
-- Take an old sheet or roll of butcher paper, and hang it from a clothesline or between two trees. Give kids squirt bottles full of tempera paint or water colors, and let them unleash their inner Pollock.
-- Let kids turn your garage doors, front stoop, or driveway into a neighborhood gallery with sidewalk chalk, then hose it down.
-- Place your child's easel in the yard. If you have a rolling chalkboard that you can move out there, even better.
Corral tiny parts. If your child loves to play with Legos or other building sets, first spread out a large beach towel or sheet and allow them to play on top of it. When she's done playing, fold the sides of the sheet in to capture all the pieces.
Your bathtub is an invaluable resource. Finger painting can be a lot less scary for parents if your child's doing it in an empty bathtub -- most washable paints will come right off your tub. Or buy colored soap paints for children: Basically, these get kids clean as they make a mess.
Confine the mess. If you don't have a playroom, consider giving your child free creative reign of another place in your home, like their bedroom or the basement. Room size doesn't matter -- many kids actually really enjoy the coziness of small places (like the bathtub, above), so it's no surprise we often find children having turned their closet into a fort. If your child has a tiny space like that, allow it to be his area to do with what he wants for an afternoon, within reason. (And if there really are areas that you don't want your toddler entering, put up baby gates or close and lock doors.)
Take a 10-minute tidy. Set a timer, give your child a few tasks (putting away toys, shelving books and games, dusting with static wipes), and spend 10 minutes picking up and wiping down. You'd be amazed at how much you can accomplish in less time than it takes to bake a frozen pizza -- and how it doesn't take a full house scrub-down for you to feel better about how your home looks.