The Joy of Mess


Let's face it: young children are delightful, but they are messy. A three-year-old can create messes in minutes that put even the sloppiest adult to shame, and sometimes you can trace the path of a toddler by the trail of chaos they leave in their wake. Quick to create messes and slow to clean up, it can be enough to drive any parent or teacher nuts!

So no wonder we all, at some point or another, feel a strong temptation to keep our little ones away from messy things. After all, if we limit how much paint, dirt, water, and sand they can get their hands on, we limit the amount of cleaning up we have to do, right? And less cleaning up is more time for useful activities, isn't it?

Not really! In fact, there are few activities more useful for a young child than cleaning up a mess. One of the best things we can do for ourselves and the children we care for is to follow Dr. Montessori's advice to "become friendly with error" and learn to love the messes that naturally arise as children explore their world. A mess isn't a problem for a young child; it's an incredible gift. Experienced Montessori guides learn to take joy in messes because messes-- like all errors, mistakes, and challenges-- are what helps us all grow.

"The fact that we can all make mistakes makes us more friendly. Brotherhood comes along the path of errors, not the path of perfection."

-Maria Montessori

Things Happen

A Montessori classroom is full of messes just waiting to happen. All of those practical life works full of beads for spooning and lentils for pouring, buckets of soapy water being carried back and forth, pots of paint and trays full of small movable alphabet letters, and thirty little kids moving every which way... sooner or later something is going to crash. And when it does, all kinds of fantastic learning processes swing into action.

At the moment when the mess first happens-- a tray gets dropped, or a bucket gets spilled-- it's a perfect lesson in natural consequences. Young children are still refining their movements, and it's very normal for them to lose a bit of motor control when they get distracted or excited. When they experience the natural consequences of that, it shows them more clearly than any adult lecture could why it's important to be aware of their bodies in space. The natural laws of cause and effect are often the best teachers.

Second, once the mess happens, it's a problem to be solved. Assuming no one is hurt and there is no danger (in which case an adult should handle the clean-up), the mess presents a perfect incentive for children to think logically. What happened? What needs to be done to clean it up? What tools do we need? Where can we find them? How do we use them, and where does everything go back when we're done? To an adult, all of this is intuitive, but for young children, it's a wonderful exercise in procedural, organized thinking, which is a foundational skill for the development of mathematical reasoning. When children figure these things out for themselves, and especially when they get lots of opportunities to do so, it strengthens their ability to remember and follow complex processes.

Carrying out the clean-up then brings into play a whole set of motor skills. Some types of cleaning up, like sweeping, develop gross motor skills, while others-- think of picking up a bunch of spilled beads-- develop fine motor skills. In fact, highly active preschoolers are often the most enthusiastic about cleaning up, because it can involve quite a bit of exercise for a little body!

Show Them Early On

In toddler and primary classrooms, cleaning up is also a chance to develop social skills. Young children, despite their propensity to create messes, generally have a very strong love of order and take great delight in putting things right. When Montessori spoke of classrooms where the correction of error becomes a matter of general interest, she must have been thinking (in part) of the propensity of preschoolers to all pitch in together when a mess happens. Any big crash will draw a little crowd within moments, with the older ones planning what to do while the younger ones immediately jump in to start picking things up. At first, it may be a little chaotic, but with a few gentle adult cues and a bit of time, even very young children can quite effectively resolve a mess on their own.

"I love mess!"

-Marie Kondo

Cultivate a Positive Attitude

Finally, when the mess is cleaned up and the children have been able to bring things back into order on their own, they experience a boost in self-confidence and self-reliance. When Marie Kondo talks about loving a mess, she is in part referring to the sense of satisfaction that comes from the process of tidying up. Fixing things, restoring order, making amends-- we feel good when we have the chance to do these things for ourselves. It's a form of self-actualization, especially for little ones, who have a strong need to contribute meaningfully to their family and community but get few age-appropriate ways to do so.

What can we, as adults, do to help children get all these benefits from their messes? The first thing is to make sure they have access to the tools and skills they need to clean up. At home or at school, have child-sized brooms, dustpans, sponges, and drying cloths available where children can reach them, and model how to use them. Give children opportunities to practice the basic elements of cleaning up in a controlled way so that they know what to do when a real-world need arises.

But more importantly, we have to cultivate a positive attitude towards mess. It's natural for adults to dislike messes: since they're not a developmentally meaningful challenge for us, they don't provide the satisfaction and interest that they do for children. If we project our frustration and irritation with messes onto children, they may begin to develop a resistance to cleaning up, since they'll associate it with our negative emotions. However, if we can develop a friendly, warm feeling towards messes and clean up, we will see how they teach children coordination, organization, cooperation, and confidence.

If you have questions, comments, or if you’d like to suggest future topics, please leave a note in the comments section below.

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