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Mess is good for your classroom. Right?

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Publish date: 2018-12-10


Mess, mess, glorious mess,
Nothing quite like it for us learning best,
So, submerge your hands,
In all of that sand,
Let’s have fun as planned, 
In glorious mess.

Truth is: Mess is good for your classroom. “Right?” I hear you say, “Try that with 35 kids on a rainy day indoors!” But, we are not talking about anything unhygienic, or haphazard and chaotic, or about classroom equipment strewn all over the floor. We are talking about full, rich sensory play. We are talking about colours, and textures, and temperatures. About squishing, and sprinkling, and oozing, and sliding. We are talking about crackling and rustling. About pouring, and painting, and sticking, and tearing. Really, we are talking about FUN. 

Allowing children to play and explore with all their senses makes learning easier, more accessible, and longer lasting. This type of learning can be started as early as the baby and toddler years and followed all the way through schooling. It helps develop vocabulary as they learn to verbalise their varied experiences. Gross motor skills are improved as children use their whole bodies in a playful way and receive sensory feedback from the mess around them. Grips and grasps are developed in a fun and non-threatening way, paving the way for later pencil and scissor skills. Play with mess helps children to tolerate a range of sensory experiences and can decrease difficulties related to tactile defensiveness – a difficulty where children are overly sensitive to touch stimuli and can find the experience threatening or even painful. Feeling dry things, and wet things, and smooth and rough, and soft and hard; all help children to develop their tactile discrimination. Pulling and tugging at things, smearing and wiping, squeezing and rubbing different items; helps to develop in-hand manipulation and force regulation. These are all components of functional fine motor skills and are important for children to access in order to be able to perform classroom tasks. 

So how do you make the “mess” of “messy play” a little less stressful? It’s clear that it is beneficial but it also has to be practical. It has to be possible in your classroom without becoming completely disruptive and without you, as a teacher, becoming completely frazzled.
Follow these tips to make it a little more manageable: 

  • Be prepared – plan the messy play activity that you are going to do and have everything set out and ready before you start. The mess should be about the sensory experience for the child and not about the activity being a mess. Having everything well prepared can help avoid unnecessary spills and mishaps. 
  • Do as much as you can outside – when choosing your environment consider the benefits of being outside. Does the activity warrant having a less contained space in order to allow for more freedom with materials as children are not as worried about making a mess? Can you have permanent messy play features stationed outside which children can access at play times like sand pits, water trays, or a nature walkway?
  • Keep messy play activities in specific areas in the classroom – making sure that play-dough or modelling clay is only played with at desks so that it does not get trampled into the carpet or setting up painting near the sink where hands and painting materials can be easily washed will make your life easier. 
  • Messy play is not the same as free play – giving children the opportunity to explore and experiment with different materials does not mean that they can play without guidelines and rules. You can add as much structure to the activity as you think is needed. It is important that they are getting their hands dirty but as the teacher, you can say just how much hand cream and yoghurt they are allowed to use in that magic potion they are making. 
  • Choose your materials wisely – where possible use products that can wash out, be wiped up easily, or won’t cause damage to surfaces they come into contact with. The activity will become a lot less stressful if you are not worrying about the desks being permanently marked or fingers being stained for the remainder of the day.
  • Cover up – sometimes you will need to use materials that will stain so be sure to cover-up. Whether it is with aprons over clothes or newspaper taped to the floor, having a protective layer will give both you and the children a bit more freedom to really get involved in the activity and not worry about the mess being made. 
  • Not all messy or sensory play needs to actually be messy – having scented water in basins for handwashing or doing hand massages with creams and lotions can give benefits of messy play without actually making a mess of your classroom or children. These types of activities can be included into everyday class routine and so can be a very accessible form of messy play. 
  • Choose a mess that you can tolerate – we all have different sensory profiles and preferences and so can tolerate different sensations. It’s important that, as the teacher, you know what your preferences are. Having messy play activities that challenge your sensory thresholds is going to become stressful for everyone. If you can’t handle painting or mud, do cooking sessions instead. Do what you will be least frustrated by so that you are able to let the children properly explore and experiment. And remember that children have sensory preferences too and so may not be able to tolerate the same things as you and you should be sensitive to that.
  • Create your own cleaning kit - include paper towels, hand cream, wipes, clothes, a brush and pan – anything that you will need to clean up easily and quickly. Having a well-stocked cleaning kit easily on hand will make the mess a little less daunting. 
  • Include children in the clean-up process – as much as is age appropriate, get the children to help you clean up. Not only does this provide other sensory feedback and motor skills learning, it also helps them to learn about responsibility and keeping their environment clean. 

Once you have accepted that there will be an element of mess, and you have put strategies in place to manage this mess as much as possible, you will start to see the benefits of messy play without it being quite as stressful as you may have previously thought or experienced.  With time hopefully, in your classroom, it will start to be: mess, mess, glorious mess…. 

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