Let Them Play: Why Kids Should Make a Mess

Making a Mess Has Surprising Benefits

Toddler girl jumping in puddle
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Children and messes go hand in hand. Usually, though, moms and dads work really hard to avoid the spills, stains and general disarray that seem to follow kids around. Yet not all messes are created equal. Sure, unwashed hands at the dinner table and piles of toys that never get cleaned up are no-nos, but other types of dirt and disorder can actually be beneficial for your child. Here are some of the reasons you may want to let your little one get good and messy:

It May Improve Their Health:

A growing number of researchers have been advocating that dirt is something kids need. In the book "Why Dirt Is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends" microbiology and immunology expert Mary Ruebush, Ph.D., argues that, "exposure to dirt helps children build strong immune systems that will provide lifelong protection."

The hygiene hypothesis, or the belief that dirt can protect children from allergies and illness, is a phenomenon that continues to be studied. While scientists debate the issue, the takeaway for parents is this: playing in dirt isn't so bad and may actually be beneficial. However, you should still follow the rules of good hygiene, including teaching your child to wash their hands after playing in the mud or being exposed to germs, and, as even Dr. Ruebush notes, you should keep vaccines up to date since they provide an important boost of immunity.

It Engages the Senses:

The feel of mud underneath bare feet, the sound of a bird, the smell of grass up close - these sensory experiences will help your child understand the world better than any book or DVD can. You can tell your child all about berries, but until they see their bright colors, feel their squishy flesh and tastes how sweet they are, they won't know what a berry is.

Research shows that when multiple senses are stimulated the brain is more likely to remember what’s being learned, so try teaching numbers, colors and new words by using natural materials that engage multiple senses. Think: aromatic flowers, rough sticks and rocks.

It Builds Motor Skills:

Of course there are many non-messy ways for your child to exercise their fine motor skills. Many nice, clean toys, for instance, encourage kids to pick up and play with small items or write on mess-free erase boards. The downside is that these games don't allow for open-ended play. In other words, a child can only do what's expected and pre-planned. There isn't an opportunity to experiment much beyond the limitations of the features already present in the toy.

Give your child large sheets of paper, a bit of washable paint and any number of fun tools for painting and you're more likely to see them get more excited and motivated to use those small hand and finger muscles. These muscles are the ones they'll use for everything from self-feeding, to buttoning a jacket, to writing with a pencil.

Open-ended play is also important for encouraging your child to use their large muscle groups: legs, arms, back, shoulders, etc. There's only so much that can be done on a playground jungle gym. You may be surprised what a child will find to do in a backyard or park that has little more than some trees, small ponds and a dirt pit.

It Makes Kids Think:

Given the chance to climb, roll, crawl and jump freely, your little explorer can use their imagination to create anything they want. It also lets them test out "what if:" What if I dump some water in that dirt hole? What if I pull on the blades of grass? Here, your child can start asking questions, making observations and changing the situation to see if it changes the outcome. Yes, they will get filthy, but they will also be thinking like a scientist, which will put them on a path to asking and answering many more questions in the years to come.

It Makes Kids Better at Cleaning Up:

In an odd twist of circumstances, it's often easier to get kids to clean up after a big messy playtime, but only if you've taken the time to lay down some guidelines for messy time and clean up time beforehand.

First, consider creating a zone (one indoors, one outdoors) where your child can make a mess and doesn’t have to clean up right away. Fill this area with toys and materials that encourage dramatic and constructive play.

Next, help your child prepare for the transition from messy play to clean up by giving them a notice 15 minutes before it's time to clean up. Remind them again in 10 minutes and then 2 minutes before it's time. Remind your child again as you start picking up pieces of the activity and talking about what you're doing next. It helps to make the next thing sound really exciting, even if it's nap time.

Give your child special clean up tools like a dustpan and brush or even a clean up apron, and start singing a song like Barney's famous "Everybody Clean Up" tune. In this way, clean up feels like a game as well and can help you encourage good habits that follow the good dirtying up.

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