How Messy Should I Let My Kids Get?

Today I had a temper tantrum.  Me, the grown up. *Sigh*

For the third consecutive day, I discovered an explosion of toys and crafts and clothes—an explosion that left enough rubble behind to cover our entire second story. There were two survivors, and they were both sitting on top of it all—smiling.

I don’t think anyone would accuse me of being an overly neat person… at least not anyone who has ever lived with me. As a creative, I can find joy in making a real mess. Just ask my husband about our kitchen after I’ve baked. But, ultimately I am a person who has a limit and abandoned clutter is it. I can’t take it.

The problem: I live with two tiny destructors that have zero issue with walking into a room, dumping out 75 different containers of toys into one glorious pile and walking away to another room to repeat this same eruption of madness. We call it toy soup, but their recipes are getting bigger and more complicated and I’m afraid this soup could feed a village.

In truth, while I’m having a full-on breakdown, my kids seem pretty darn happy in this mess. But, is it just a fleeting moment of “make it rain” euphoria? If I make them clean it up, am I stifling their creativity?  I was always taught kids need to learn the art of tidying up as much as they need a creative outlet. “Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share!” Right?

Turning to the wide world of moms on the internet, there are some pretty strong arguments for and against mess.

Messy Vs. Messy Play

The Importance of Messy Play, an article published in Natural Child Magazine, outlines reasons why we should all get messy. But, I walked away from this piece feeling… dare I say justified?

According to the author Liz Parnell, it’s OK for messy play to have limits. I am all about my girls getting their hands dirty with play-doh and paint and yes, even actual dirt. I can more easily handle a glitter bomb on the floor or a kitchen covered in flour than I can a tote bag full of Barbie shoes, game pieces and legos. I can handle being messy, I just can’t handle the soup.

Turn to Pinterest and you will find thousands of boards dedicated to “messy play.” So now, not only are we organizing playdates, we are also organizing and planning out mess too—which seems almost sad. The very idea of this makes me wonder: Is intentional mess messy enough?

The Tiny Fashionista

After receiving a letter asking parents to encourage messy play from her child’s teacher, Judy Batalion, for The New York Times, chatted with psychologists and child experts trying to get to the bottom of the whole mess. Do children need the freedom to make a mess? Does it really foster creativity? And, should these same messy children be taught how to clean up after themselves?

She spoke with Tamar Gordon, a psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders, who said, “What’s important for children is structure—not necessarily the same thing as a clean room.”

Parents need to decide what works best for their child. Some kids, just like some adults, are more inclined to be messy while others tend to be more neat. Teaching kids on both sides of this fence how to get messy and clean may be a worth-while adventure.

So today I’m going to leave the broom and grab a spoon to help stir the latest batch of toy soup.