making messes joyfully

A student’s request of “Can I paint?” this morning sparked this beautiful play experience, as we brought out finger paint for the first time.

Several students were interested in trying out this new medium, and tried out various different techniques (fingerprints, handprints, swiping to make lines and doodles) on their paper. However, after a few minutes, they were all ready to move on to something new. The student pictured here, however, finger painted for more than 25 minutes, and would have happily kept at it all morning!

I was so intrigued to watch this young artist explore this new medium with such joy; it was such a privilege to watch this beautiful sensory experience unfold.

This student continued to apply more paint to her hands and spread it, slap it, and swipe it across the paper. This special finger paint paper has a slightly glossy finish to allow a gliding motion while applying paint, and really adds to the sensory experience as your hands can easily drift across the page. The student told me that she was going to cover every part of the white paper with paint, and continued to smear more in all of the bare edges. After watching for a while, I asked if she minded if I join in (I had to get my hands dirty too; she made it look so fun!) and she happily agreed.

As we painted, we continued to talk about the methods and colours we were using. The student shared that she paints a lot at home too, but uses paint brushes. It was clear to me that she did not mind the mess one bit; she now had paint halfway up both of her arms and covering every part of her hands and fingers. As she continued to apply more paint and glide it across the paper, she commented that it felt ‘slippery.’ I continued to sit in awe of the wonderful learning and play-based exploration taking place.

What struck me about this experience was how freeing it is to know that you are allowed to get dirty and make messes. My EA and I did not require this student to keep the paint only on the paper (as some got on the table) or try to keep it on her hands (as it spread up her arms); she was given full freedom to explore this messy play as she pleased. This made me stop and ponder how often adults try to regulate children’s play to minimize mess and inconvenience.

I then began to question why this messy play so intrigued this child, but had only briefly held the attention of others. There are certainly many possible reasons for this, but the two that I find most thought-provoking are:

  1. That some children like the sensory experience of being messy, while others find it uncomfortable and unpleasant (I can be this way myself; I don’t like the feeling of having sticky/dirty hands, especially if I know I don’t have a means to clean them). How can we continue to offer rich sensory experiences for children who don’t find this pleasant?
  2. That, perhaps, children don’t engage deeply with messy play because they are not used to being afforded this style of play. I wonder how many adults (unintentionally) squash children’s interest to get messy by constantly sending the message that mess is negative. Even I am guilty of this in my classroom at times. As adults, we often find the mess inconvenient or annoying to clean up, but we miss the learning or intentions that children had while creating the mess. I’ve noticed that children don’t usually make a mess simply to make a mess or be “naughty;” they are usually engaged in some play or exploration that led to the mess. How can we be more mindful of the learning implications involved in ‘making a mess’? How can we allow messy play that is meaningful and rich?

In closing, this experience has prompted me to reflect on ways that messy play can live in my classroom so that it is engaging and authentic for children’s learning, while not being totally wild and out-of-control (we still have to keep some semblance of routines and make a mess within reason; this doesn’t mean letting children run rampant like the Kindergarteners from the TV show “Recess”).

I am currently planning to have a “Messy Family Day” this spring, so families and children can engage in messy activities outside together (think mud pie making, tie dyeing clothing, and Jackson Pollock inspired painting). It is also equally important for adults to have an outlet to play and be messy.

Another idea I have to incorporate messy play more this year is to utilize our class set of Muddy Buddies more, especially as we play outside more due to COVID protocols this year. (Muddy Buddies are a brand of outdoor apparel that is like a raincoat-onesie; it covers you from head to toe and is great for jumping in mud puddles or messy art activities – check them out here). Now I just need to get an adult version for me and my EA! Puddle jumping and outdoor painting, here we come!

How do you honour messy play in your classroom? How do you feel about “mess”?

Until next time,

-KKF

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