Uninhibited Learning: Messiness Promotes Exploration and Discovery

My 19-year-old son is an artist.  Before he paints, he dips his fingers in the paint.  He explained to a friend, “If I start with paint on my hands, then I don’t worry about getting messy.  If I am concentrating on not getting messy, then it inhibits my creativity.”

I feel like I spend my career convincing people to let the mess happen.  Let the classroom get messy.  Let the children dive in.  I tell teachers, teacher assistants, directors, early ed. students – anyone within earshot.  I tell parents, grandparents and even the children when they are hesitant.  I have read the research, done research of my own and observed the difference in the scope of learning between the “dive in” method and the more neatness leaning environments.  All that professional energy and my college age son described the issue best – “It inhibits my creativity.”

What exploration, discoveries and learning are inhibited when typically developing children are worried about getting their clothes messy?  What don’t they find out if they are concerned about losing hair bows or getting dirt under their nails or being chastised for ruining their good outfit?  So much – so very much is lost.

A group of children were playing in the mud.  They learned about volume, mass, mixtures, physics, slope, water flow and more.  They were free to do so because they had permission and were assured that their parents would not be upset.  Playing in the mud in my school – from the time I was a teacher through my career as a director – has always been permitted and encouraged.  Nature and its creations are important catalysts for curiosity and exploration.

When I consult, I work with whatever mess we’ve got.  In the city, it may be hard to come naturally upon mud so we make some or grab anything at our disposal – tubs of water, finger paint, shaving cream, sand, pudding, various types of substances.  In one school, the sensory table – often filled with sand or rice in preschools – was filled with shaving cream.  The children were elbow deep.  They learned about texture, temperature, consistency, socialization, sharing, cooperation and more.

I remember finger painting as a child.  I don’t remember being worried about getting the paint on my clothes.  In my experience, children only worry about their clothes when they are told to worry about their clothes.  Then, they hesitate to join in with the others who are learning about colors, honing fine and gross motor skills, developing the parts of the brain that govern creativity, comparing, contrasting and more.

Some children need extra encouragement to use glue because they don’t understand the stickiness.  The children who dive into the glue learn about cause & effect, problem solving, critical thinking, following directions….

And when the children are all done, we go to the restroom to clean ourselves up.  With the staff members’ help, the children learn about hygiene, self-care, washing, drying, taking turns, waiting, dressing themselves, transitions from activity to activity and place to place and more.

The list of learning of uninhibited messy exploration is endless.  If your child has sensory issues, seek therapy so that this learning can simply happen differently or at a different pace.  If your child is simply afraid of getting a shirt dirty, then it isn’t the right shirt to wear for play and for preschool.  One of the wonders of the early childhood years is the lack of inhibition – the children are yet as self-conscious and influenced by peer pressure as they will be very soon.  Don’t stand in the way of their natural and boundless curiosity and need to explore. 


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  1. That's a very important and a crucial one, Thanks for the eye opening.

    1. Thank you! Glad you found value in my article.

  2. Thank you! I am a retired educator, but i thought for years that we inhibit children by our high expectations for "NEATNESS". We equate neatness for academic excellence!
    This message needs to be HEARD and heeded!

    1. Thank you!! I have spent so much time pointing this out when I lecture and teach professional development.

    2. We have aprons on hand for our preschool children if they like to get involved in messy play. Well make gloop or slime, mud pies and more, though we stopped using shave foam some children were sensitive to the ingredients in it an it. A few children will watch an observe but il just gently encourage them; il always have bucket of water at bay to wash messy play hands. Messy play is fun doesn't matter what age I always find myself in it along with the children you hear some wonderful conversations an interactions.

    3. That's great! I find more and more people stepping away from or not allowing it. Sigh...


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