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Happy Messes: How To Let Kids Play Without Feeling Stressed

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Development & Learning

Most children are not naturally neat. Many things children like to play with are messy. But moms and dads – who likely work all day and have limited time for clean up would like to keep kids neater by letting them play only with un-messy things.

So how can you keep the house neat most of the time, while still letting children explore a variety of materials and play without worrying about the mess? Here are some tips.

1. Think ahead. Have a designated place for art projects, water play and other messy fun in a spot where the floor is easily swept and surfaces are washable.

2. Choose messy materials wisely. If you hate finding sparkly bits everywhere, don’t let glitter into the house. Choose sets of little dry water colors instead of an easel with open jars of liquid paint. Buy washable school glue instead of the regular kind. Fill a bin with dry rice instead of sand for kids to dig in – rice won’t ruin your floors the way ground-in sand will. If you need water to dip brushes in, choose a jar that’s heavy and low so it won’t tip over.

3. Teach how to use materials. Preschoolers don’t know. Show them how much glue is enough. Show them how to paint without dripping everywhere. Keep kid-sized aprons handy to cover clothes and show them how to roll up their sleeves.

4. Teach kids clean-up skills. Preschoolers love to use a small hand broom and a dustpan and they love to wipe up spills. Keep cleaning equipment and a trash bin close to your messy area and show kids how to use them. They won’t do so good a job as you and you’ll likely have to follow behind them with a more thorough effort, but it’s important that children don’t think only adults can clean.

5. Plan time for clean up. If it will take 10 minutes to put things away and sweep up, then stop the play 10 minutes ahead of dinner time or bedtime, not five minutes ahead or zero minutes ahead. Making clean up part of the plan helps ensure that the event ends happily, not with tension and frustration.

Few things are more important to a preschooler’s cognitive development than messing around freely with interesting things. They’ve got to get their hands dirty in order to figure out how things work and fine tune small muscles. You want your kids to play.

And now you know how to let them play without making a huge mess.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.