The Benefits of Messy Time

When my daughter Olivia was a toddler, her best friend was Will, the two-year-old down the street. Will didn’t say much, so Olivia talked for both of them. He adored trains—his “choo-choos.” All summer before preschool started, we’d spend as many days as we could in Will’s “train yard.” His train yard was a three-by-three-foot pile of landscaping rock his parents had dumped in the backyard just for Will. Puddles formed the occasional moat. The whole thing was a muddy, mucky mess—and an absolute magnet for a pair of toddlers engaged in mostly parallel play.

Will and Olivia would climb up and down the rocks, pushing trains across the bumpy terrain. The two little engineers liked to take brief breaks to water the garden. They’d also dig trenches and trails or look for bugs. All the while, two tired moms could sit in the shade and talk—about what else but our kids!

I’ll admit that I’m not always the outdoorsy type. I’m the one under a tree in a humongous straw hat reapplying sunscreen. But Will liked to stay outdoors from morning till bedtime, and I learned the importance of all that “messy time” in the fresh air. Will’s mom was a pediatric nurse, and she had an insider’s knowledge about keeping young children moving and exploring. I was good at reading to my daughter, working on puzzles, and playing pretend. But I had a lot to discover about that sensory playtime children need and crave.

The Benefits of Messy TimeWhy Get Messy?

So many reasons! You’ve probably heard from doctors and educators about how important it is to provide children with gross- and fine-motor activities for muscle growth. Active outdoor play is essential for children’s development (at all ages and stages). By making “messy time” a feature of daily life, you’ll help your little ones improve their physical fitness, thinking skills, sensory awareness, and creativity.

Outdoor places: Don’t have space for a “train yard”? How about a dirt pit or small sandbox? You can also go to the playground or park a few times per day or take walks in your neighborhood. Look for places where your child can try out full-body movements: running, marching, climbing, rolling, tumbling. Don’t shy away from puddles, muddy patches, and fresh-mown grass. I’ll bet some of your best childhood memories include stomping your feet in water or getting grass stains on your elbows and knees.

As I write this, it’s seven degrees in Minnesota. (What I wouldn’t give for a bit of fresh-mown grass!) In the afternoons, I see children outside making snow angels or simply looking at the size and shape of their footprints in the snow. I watch dads and moms joining in the play or shivering nearby.

If long days spent outdoors are not possible due to your work or the weather, you can still have that all-important messy time indoors.

Indoor spaces: Is there somewhere at home where your child can spread out for messy play? And not just the kind of play where blocks and toys are scattered all over the floor. I’m talking about the type of messy that involves paint, sponges, dough, ink stampers, food ingredients, bubbles—ooey, gooey, icky, sticky fun! Sometimes, we forget that boundaries can inhibit creativity. For example, if your child has a coloring book that shows a picture to fill in, there are automatic borders: the border of the page, the lines in the image itself. What if you were to give your child enormous sheets of paper, plus fingerpaints and other art supplies? What if your child could cover his palms in paint to make handprints? Use sponges to apply the colors? Blow bubbles indoors? Help you make a batch of play dough or slime? Activities such as these encourage not only dramatic expression but also emotional release. Try doing some with your child—you just might realize that making a mess is fun!

Happy faces: Whether you are making messes indoors or out, you’re encouraging open-ended play—or play without borders. When Olivia and Will played side-by-side, their train-wrangling led to rock-stacking, led to hole-digging, led to mud-smearing—which culminated in washing the trains in the nearby baby pool. A story almost seemed to be taking shape. Time would pass as the two friends got caught up in their sensory-rich play, which included sound (chugga-chugga-choo choo!), smell, taste, and touch. Back then, as a new mom, I was learning the importance of giving young children the places and spaces to extend their play. What I know all these years later is that I opened doors for Olivia to explore whole-body movement and the beginnings of imaginative thinking. By the end of the day, she and Will were usually covered in dirt, grass, food stains, bubble soap, and splotches of sunscreen. But what I remember most are the happy faces looking up at us—and the nights of better sleep after a full day of play.

What About Clean-Up?

Clean-up time may not be as fun as messy time, but it’s an inevitable part of our everyday lives. Think of clean-up time as a teaching tool. I watched in awe as my daughter entered Montessori school that fall and at age three was learning to wipe the table, wash out her paintbrushes, use a tiny broom and dustpan to clean the floor, and tidy up with her new friends. Even better, she liked it! It was an aha moment for me. I saw that Olivia was eager to stretch her skills and show respect for her environment. I embraced the idea at home, building in extra time for her to help me clean up after our mess-making while singing the classic “Clean-Up Song” on repeat.

Later, I even wrote a book on the topic for toddlers—Clean-Up Time. Speaking of messes and cleaning up, one of my favorite picture books for children is the beloved Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion, illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham, originally published in 1956 and still going strong. Harry, a white dog with black spots, hates bath time. He buries the scrubber and runs away, only to become so dirty that no one recognizes him when he returns covered in mud and railroad soot. Will he dig up that scrubber and face clean-up time with a new outlook? Indeed! Children love watching Harry’s transformation from clean to dirty to clean once again. You can find the book at your local library, or look for a free read-aloud version by Betty White, produced by StorylineOnline.

“The Benefits of Messy Time” originally appeared at Copyright © 2022 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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