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Messy play – its role in child development

“Don't make a mess “ is a retort that is often heard from parents and teachers who work with children. Living in clean and organized Singapore mess is not something that features much in our physical environment, there is order around and many children live very full, organized and clean lives. “Thank goodness for wet wipes”, sighs a parent as she quickly wipes the spilt liquid up from the restaurant table as a gleeful child pours their chocolate milk across the white marble tabletop.

But perhaps we are missing something, maybe mess has its place. In my developmental art making stages I see that Mess and Tolerance as the first stage of true creative development and that creativity is important for social, emotional and cognitive development. This stage often begins in the child splashing water in the bath and having delight in seeing how their bodies impact on the water, they hoot with delight as the water goes everywhere- hoorah for water that dries so easily and cleanly. In exploring mess a child learns they can make an impact on the world, they learn about cause and affect, they learn to tolerate unpredictability, they learn to be spontaneous and playful. The child’s chocolate milk is not naughtiness it is exploration, yes we can clear it up but lets not make the child feel it was a bad thing to do, encourage them to see how it drips, let them understand the concepts of shape and form that happens when a liquid is poured. Let them feel they can have some control on their world. Children are natural explorers.

Often children are told to be controlled and ordered, but without understanding mess and what it means, how it is made and how it feels, being controlled is only one sided. Children need to explore mess in order to learn control, they need to be able to tolerate the unpredictably of water play, gooey paint and making mud pies to grow into resilient adults. Our journey through life is often outside our control and many of the intuitive emotional coping skills of resilient adults are wired in the brain in the early years of messy play. Time and again in my clinical work I see children becoming happier, more confident and at peace with themselves after they have been allowed to explore in my messy art room. So next time you reach for the wet wipes, or chide a child for making a mess stop and think “ Could this messy play actually be important for their development?”

More examples of why mess matters available in my book “Fighting the Dragon, Finding the Self - why art and play matter in early childhood” available at

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