The rise of Messy Play

Messy Play: two words that strike fear into any parent’s heart.

Think back 20 years. I don’t know how old y’all are but let’s just pretend we’re 25. What were you doing when you were 5 years old? I’m guessing you ran around eating dirt, playing with leaves, poking murky water with sticks. Maybe found some unrecognisable animal poop in your preschool sand pit. And did your parents spray you with hand sanitiser three (to six) times a day? Probably not. In fact, your parents probably tell you similar stories of riding bikes, playing in mud and building forts in trees…so why the push towards sterility and cleanliness in play time over the last 20 years?

Let me put it out there: I am a member of the “I always have hand sanitiser in my bag” club. Pre-Everly and even in the newborn days, I did NOT think I would be a fan of messy play. I like things to be organised, structured and tidy. Some might even say I take that to a slightly obsessive level (I mean, not to my face, but I’m sure they do).

Most of us seem to be conditioned to hate mess. The constant “mum chatter” is a great example: we moan about picking up after kids, having a messy dining room table, never being able to see the floor (although, real talk, if you can’t see your floor then heads up, you DO need to clean up a bit). So starting Everly at Curious Me– a messy/nature play group- was definitely not at the top of my list! Now, though? I can’t imagine life without it.

This conditioning to dislike dirt and mess isn’t new, but taking it through to children’s play time is. Mary Douglas (author of Purity and Danger) argues that our obsession with cleanliness isn’t about hygiene but is actually an attempt to keep chaos at bay. In a world that seems to be getting faster and more chaotic by the day, is it any wonder that hand sanitiser sales increase every year? Being clean, and the process of cleaning, gives us a sense of order and calm.

But that’s where we hit a few snags when it comes to passing this pattern of thought on to our children.

Firstly; the Hygiene Hypothesis. A debate around this hypothesis (David Strachan, 1989) could make for its own blog post entirely, with many scientists now believing that sanitising our surroundings is fostering allergies in children – something that’s more than doubled in the last decade. Whether you’re team Hypothesis or not, there’s a lot of evidence that cleaner does not necessarily equal healthier.
Secondly (and more importantly in my view) are the benefits to cognitive development that messy, sensory and nature play provide for children; benefits that far outweigh our neuroses about dirt. Research shows that the way a child’s neural pathways develop in the first three years will form a map for how they learn later in life. The more neural pathways, the more developed the brain. How do you form neural pathways? Sensory stimulation.
For me, that’s enough of a reason to bin the hand sanitiser and let Everly go to town in the dirt, but let’s look at a few more of the key benefits.

Play is the best way to learn!

Sensory and messy play supports language development and social interaction, motor skills, problem solving skills and establishes methods for anxious children to regulate their emotions. This is so evident at the Curious Me class that Everly attends. Every “invitation to play” area is set up so thoughtfully with adaptive and open ended experiences, and not only do they focus on the 5 “main” senses, but their set up also promotes learning through the 2 lesser known senses: Vestibular (movement/balance) and Proprioconception (body awareness).

Language development: Research shows that there is a strong correlation between language and imaginative play.
“It extends on children’s word banks through the descriptive language we use when communicating about messy play, or the conversing they do with friends. That is slimy, sticky, wet, smooth ect.” – Kaycee, Curious Me

Motor Skills: Mixing, pouring, sifting, and sorting are great movements for little hands, fingers and wrists. If these muscles aren’t used and developed when kiddies are young, later skills like feeding and writing can become much more difficult.

Problem solving: While it might not seem like it (amongst the pandemonium of paint, rice, flowers and mud) this type of play also directly promotes problem solving and making maths based decisions. Children learn about size, weight, guesstimation, experimenting, counting and sorting. Cause and Effect along with Trial and Error are also learned through experimenting with their own thinking.

Anxiety: Sensory tactics have long been used as an outlet for anxious children. Kaycee from Curious Me states; “Sensory play will engage children where they are able to build concentration and increase focus; in turn enabling children to self settle. They will then be able to use the skills they have learnt and apply these skills when in stressful situations.”

At the end of the day, watching your children squelch mud through their fingers, fall over in food colouring and put rice up their nose might make you feel a bit queasy (it definitely makes me feel ill) and you might have to sit on your hands to physically restrain yourself from racing over with a baby wipe every seven seconds, but take a deep breath and look at the happiness on their little faces. Think about the amount of dirt you ate as a kid. You turned out alright, right? (Also Napisan works wonders).

Curious Me is based south of Brisbane. For other nature and sensory playgroups around Australia, check out Nature Play Australia