Monday, October 24, 2011

What's Wrong With Messy?

Courtesy Flickr
One of our local playgrounds has a delightful sandbox, fully equipped with a spigot of running water. The water splashes down through pavement and rocks, then enters the sandbox down below. Kids love to run over to push the button to activate the water, about 6 feet away, then dash back to splash in the water coming out. Sometimes the button gets stuck or kids push it repeatedly. Then the corner of the sandbox fills with water...enough water to splash feet, dig moats, and get very, very messy.

I've seen two patterns emerge at this sandbox, especially around the water. The most common one is the Forbidden Zone pattern. Toddlers and babies, in particular, are shuttled away from this Forbidden Zone of sand and water. Many of them never get a chance to touch either one. Some brave, well-meaning parents let their little ones explore a few moments, until the first splash of water gets on those oh-so-cute clothes. Then the game is over in a split second, ending with cries of defeat, loss, and frustration. From expressions on the parents' faces, I'm guessing they feel pretty deflated, too. 

The other pattern I've seen is one of Oh Well, Here We Go. Parents remove their child's shoes gently and sometimes pant legs get rolled up. Often these kids are accompanied by a few sand toys to share. They make their mess and when it's time to go, they use the running water to rinse off the sand. Some just play in the water the whole time, getting soaked to varying degrees. The only remorseful parting cries are those from the kid who wants to play longer.

Today I met one of these mothers who admitted to having once been a Forbidden Zone mom. I never would have guessed, watching her 3 year-old daughter romp in the wet sand, caked up to the knees. She didn't even bother taking off shoes or rolling up her pants. Instead, her mom helped fill the bucket with water over and over again. Munchkin and the little girl took turns pouring water through a funnel. Some of the water spilled all around them, some splashed in the sand, and a good portion splattered all over Munchkin and the little girl. The girl and her mother just kept filling the bucket for us. Eventually Munchkin and the little girl were wading ankle deep in sand and water, stomping, splashing, kicking.

"Wow, that's cool that you let her get all messy," I remarked to the girl's mom.

"Well, you know, if you'd talked to me 3 years ago, it'd be different. But eventually I thought, you know, why fight it? She loves getting messy!" the girl's mom explained.

I smiled deeply. I recognized the personal evolution. From Blech! What a mess! I don't want to clean that up! to What's wrong with messy? While I don't enjoy cleaning up Munchkin's relentless messes (spilled milk, pee on the floor, crushed cereal under foot, etc., etc.), I have gotten better at dealing with them. Thanks to a suggestion from Hobo Mama, I now exaggerate any annoyance to a point that just makes us both laugh. I also allow Munchkin ample opportunity to get messy within safe boundaries, like this park with the awesome sandbox.

Watching this woman and her sand-covered daughter reminded me of something else about messes and children: acceptance. It's amazing what a little acceptance will do for a mother. Of course, having a spare change of clothes handy helps, too.

What are your views on letting kids get messy? Please do tell, I'd love to hear from you!


  1. Great post! I love how you describe the different types of responses to the wet, sandy mess. I am definitely a "What's wrong with messy" sort of mama. I could try to fight it, but it would just be stressful for both of us.

    This evening, I took my toddler into the back yard to quickly water our garden. Before I could even register what was happening, she was splashing in the kiddie pool, fully clothed, shoes on, and holding s stuffed animal. I gasped, then took a breath - seeing how much fun she's having always brings me back to the "what's wrong with messy" side ;)

  2. @Melissa, you raise a great point about taking a moment to assess the situation. Sometimes I just have to get past that initial knee-jerk reaction. Then I realize the mess isn't a big deal, but my son's joy sure is!

  3. I can totally relate to that mama, but I'm still evolving into someone who can embrace messes. I'm a little bit (ok, a lot) OCD about being messy, so this has been a huge learning and growing experience for me. But as soon as I saw Kieran showing the same signs of not wanting to be messy, I started *encouraging* it. I want him to enjoy all of the messes childhood has to offer :)

  4. @Dionna, that is really amazing that you can encourage mess-making for Kieran, even past your own comfort zone. We went through a phase when I "cried over spilled milk" too often (inside food messes, they seemed almost constant!). When I realized that Munchkin got upset, too, I stopped over-reacting. Funny how they pick things up from us and mirror our state of mind.