As Western parents, we often want our kids to stay clean. Not just because we’re worried about germs, but also because – who wants to clean that up? Not us! However, there are benefits to messy play in early childhood. Getting dirty for fun is ok. And, it’s for more reasons than you may think.
In this article, we’ll explain why kids getting messy and dirty is great for their child development.
Messy play helps to foster creativity and leads to scientific discovery
If you watch this video of Neil Degrasse Tyson explaining how to raise smart kids, you’ll quickly understand that part of learning is being messy. According to the example he gives in that video, breaking an egg is a lesson in physics, and biology. How hard is the shell? What happens if I toss it? What is that goo inside? How can that goo become a chicken? Science is all around us, and like Neil says, kids are born scientists.
Also, as this blog post explains, messy play teaches cause and effect. That blog gives the example of pouring vinegar on baking soda. But think about all the other ways being messy teaches us through ‘what if’ scenarios. Imagine:
- If I pour an entire bottle of shampoo into the bathtub, will I get bubbles like my bubble bath? What makes bubbles anyway?
- What happens if I squish diaper cream on my hair? Will my hair be soft?
- How far can I squirt this bottle of shaving cream? What makes it fly?
- If I pour water on the bag of flour I just dumped, will I get play dough? How does flour become play dough instead of slime?
- If I dig through the mud, will I find worms? Why do worms live there?
- If I splash this muddy water, will it make a noise? What’s that noise?
- If I kick this ball into my blocks, how will they fall? Will it make a big mess?
- Can mommy’s lipstick be my paint? What happens when I draw with it?
All of the above thoughts a child might have can seem totally unwelcome to a parent. We so often want to control our kids and ‘push’ them towards civility. But that’s not how they’re made. They’re made to explore. So, we need to give them a way to ‘get it out of their system.’
If you don’t want flour all over your carpet and couch while you’re not looking, give your kids a safe, constrained place to experiment with this sensory material. Let them get dirty by mixing cookie dough with their hands, while you bake. Give them opportunities for getting messy, and be there to teach them about what is happening, to cultivate that thinking process.
Then, try not to get too mad if they happen to start painting with your shaving cream, or dump water and flour all over the place. You can be firm, but remember: they’re just experimenting. They’re not thinking mischievous thoughts with a vendetta against you. They didn’t know any better.
Messy play is sensory play in early childhood, and it’s needed for development
If you google “messy play,” you’ll find a ton of articles about sensory activities. But why? Why are these two child development theories so related?
When we think of messy play, we may think of ‘dirty’ play. They’re both good, for their own reasons (and within reason). Messy play can be dirty, too, of course.
But the thing that makes the mess, or the dirt, is what’s important here. Kids are not just exploring and creating when they make a mess. They are also developing their senses, which is really important in early childhood.
This is why, as early childhood educators, we talk about “sensory play” and, in our preschool classrooms, we set up sensory stations. These include bins or ‘random art’ projects sand, coloured rice, beans, beads, shaving cream, gel, play dough, pasta, marbles, textured fabric, yarn, sticks, tin foil, sponges and more. Kids need to touch, smell, see and hear things. It helps them understand the materials they are working with, and how they behave. It may seem commonplace to you, but in fact, our brains need to learn about, remember and expect certain senses. Using language, we also need to learn how to name things, based on our shared experiences. For example, what does “squishy” mean? How is it different from “slimy”?
Not only that, sensory play like this opens the mind to endless possibilities. In this ‘mode’ of thinking, the child is totally free to make what they want, feel what they want, direct their hands the way they want, and so on.
With crafts, they do get some sensory activity. But crafts have ‘rules’, so to speak. There is an end-goal. With sensory activities, there is no goal except to experience, with the senses. And then, the child can direct their own learning. This is also the benefits of being bored and having downtime, which we explain here. The ‘mindlessness’ is great for kids.
So, now think about how messy and dirty play fit into sensory play. Nature all around us is FULL of sensory activities. Rubbing the grass and rolling on it. Letting the grass spread its green pigment on you. Sinking feet in mud. Dropping handfuls of tiny pebbles on a bench and seeing them bounce and roll off, like rain. Playing ‘zen garden’ in the sand, or building a castle and moat. Testing the weight of sand in our buckets. Seeing if shoes can float like boats. Throwing sand in the air to watch it fly. Touching slimy worms in rain puddles. Feeling dog licks. Smelling animals.
The list goes on and on. And, it happens indoors too. Think about: dropping food on the floor and wondering why you can’t reach it anymore (for babies). Or all the other examples we gave above.
Being dirty is good for developing healthy guts and immune systems in early childhood
Here’s something your mother may have never told you: being dirty is good for you. Yes, really.
Ok, well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Dangerous bacteria and infections are definitely a ‘thing.’ So, when we say “dirty” is good for you, we don’t mean the bad stuff. You should still wash your hands if you’re sick, avoid contaminated food and definitely not let your kids play with poo. The way this Forbes article explains it, we are talking about “natural environments.”
We’re talking more about this idea that for some reason, kids shouldn’t get dirty by jumping in muddy puddles, like Peppa Pig does. They shouldn’t eat a spoonful of mud, sure. But they can play in petroleum-free, lead-free, contaminant-free mud. Like, the kind in your backyard, not the kind inside an animal pen, nor near an industrial park. If they then rub their face with dirty hands, and a minuscule amount gets in their mouth, it’s probably going to be ok, if not good for them.
Lately, researchers are finding that our Western habits of cleanliness have gone a little too far. Antibacterial soap and antibiotics can be doing us harm, especially when overused. We need microbes to develop healthy gut bacteria. We also need exposure to common allergens, like animal fur or pollen, to avoid having those allergies later in life.
In fact, irritable bowel syndrome is a disease found mainly in the developed, or developing world. Scientists think it’s because we’re too clean early in life, when we are forming our gut flora. So, we could learn a lesson or two about being less hygienic.
To conclude: messy play and early play in early childhood is great for kids’ health and development
As we’ve seen above, being messy and dirty are no big deal for kids – in fact, it’s encouraged (within reason). Messy activities help with discovery and exploration, they put the mind in ‘deep thinking’ mode, they develop senses and language recognition, they improve gut bacteria for our immune systems and more.
So go ahead, give your kids those fuzzy things, wet things, slimy things, clutter-causing things and muddy things. Let them break a few eggs and feel what it’s like inside a bowl. Get them to help you with dough batter. Bring a shovel to the park and see what happens.