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Child with Finger Paint on Hands

I never thought I'd be someone who was ok with messes. I feel best when things are tidy and clean. Unfortunately, I have a toddler. As it turns out, his perspective on mess-making slightly differs from mine.

When he was first learning to walk, beginning to explore, practicing using his hands and eyes (and, to my chagrin, teeth and tongue) to figure out the world around him, I was constantly frustrated by the mess created in his wake. My instinct was to scurry after him picking up whatever he scattered, or to keep him away from things that offered the possibility of spills. It wasn’t long before it became clear that despite any of my efforts, mess was not only inevitable, but was helping fuel his creativity and learning.

So, I let him make a mess. And now sometimes, I encourage him to make a mess.

I’ve come to see clutter and splatters as good things. Mess means that my kid has been allowed freedom to explore, to expend some energy, express creativity, and make some mistakes. Mess isn’t a result of bad behavior or irresponsible sloppiness. It’s just a piece of this phase of his learning.

I do some things to maintain my own sanity, like set boundaries (“stay at the table” or “clean this mess before you make another”). I anticipate what projects may cause some clutter or a splatter and make sure we have time in the day for the extra cleanup required. But, I allow him these projects, knowing that they’ll be a bit messy, but recognizing that the splashing or spilling or splattering will only help him to expend a bit of energy and maybe learn something new. There may be flour on the counter and small sticky fingers, but he’s practiced a bit of measuring, some mixing, and helped contribute to a meal. I may need to take a moment to wash watercolor paint off the counter, but he’s had an afternoon of creativity, color, and self expression. Avoiding these projects would limit his exposure to all sorts of fun.

My four year old is still learning so much about the world around him. By allowing him to get a little messy, I give him the opportunity to explore his small world and make a few mistakes. It’s worth a little extra cleanup time. 

Liz Moorhead

Liz Moorhead is an English teacher-turned-writer and illustrator. She paints stationery, writes for a top wedding site, and blogs at Happy Sighs between walks to the park with her two boys.