Out of the corner of my eye, I catch sight of my daughter tentatively dipping her toe into the squishy mud. I freeze. Two opposing images flash to mind; me juggling a wriggling tired baby on my hip whilst trying to wash a muddy child, or delight etched on her mud-streaked face. I have a choice here. To keep quiet and observe, or to issue a warning. Maybe, ‘don’t get those clothes dirty’, or ‘just your feet!’
I keep quiet.
There is magic here. This moment is something worthy of my protection.
It’s only dirt. This is what childhood is all about.
And yet, these experiences are becoming more and more rare for our children. Did you know that, according to a recent report, almost half of children aged 5-12 get an average of just over one hour of real play per day. This is one third less time than their parents spent at that age, a drop of 36 per cent in a single generation. Does that shock you? It should! Surely we are not ok with this? Have we become so busy that there is no time for real play anymore? I think it’s time to reevaluate our priorities.
Recently I wrote about the importance of free unstructured play for our kids. I was happy to see so many people acknowledging the importance of real play. A lot of people agreed that we need to let children imagine, create, and get messy. Whether it’s the freedom to climb a tree, catch tadpoles in the creek, or paint your sister blue. But, even though everyone seemed to agree that kids need unstructured play, there were also those that said it wasn’t ‘practical’. That they were too busy at home, and at school it wasn’t feasible to have a group of children playing completely child-led as it often involved mess.
Some people acknowledged the importance of real play for our kids but weren’t entirely comfortable with the realities of letting it happen. What if they allowed them to climb that tree and they slipped and fell? We all want to protect our children, of course, and the pressure is sometimes high for modern parents! We see pictures of perfectly put together homes and children all over social media. But life is not like that. Life is crazy, and messy, and unique to each family. Real life and real play is not posed or styled, but it is perfect just the way it is.
Kids need to experience the world in order to learn about it. They need to play to develop into the amazing people they are meant to be. The more times they hear ‘no’, ‘stop’, or ‘be careful‘ when it comes to play, the more opportunities that may be missed. Real play can sometimes be messy and loud, there’s no doubting that. But are we really going to let a little mess put us off? Watching my children, who all decided to join their sister, laugh and squeal and cover themselves in thick sticky mud, I can tell you that this is a scene I wouldn’t want to miss.
Surely the benefits of letting kids get messy through real play, far outweigh the inconvenience.
What’s so good about real play?
Children explore the world using all their senses. This is how they learn, and it often results in mess. Free, messy, unstructured play has loads of benefits, including:
- Developing confidence and independence.
- Honing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
- Practicing problem-solving and planning skills.
- Increased concentration.
- Experimenting and developing a scientific mind.
- Learning about cause and effect.
- Messy art projects allow kids to express themselves, refine their sense of touch, learn new vocabulary, and be creative.
- Increased appreciation for, and knowledge of, our environment.
- Physical health and fitness.
- And, if you’ve ever seen a kid immersed in messy free play then it’s impossible to deny the happiness it brings them.
Many of these things can not be taught in a classroom. So, no matter how impractical it seems, surely we owe it to our kids to make time for real play. No matter if you live in a small house, no matter if you have no backyard, no matter if your mother will comment about your kid looking like they haven’t had a bath for two weeks! Let’s make it happen!
Now don’t get me wrong, I hear you that it can seem too hard sometimes. I have four kids and the amount of washing they produce is unbelievable. I’m all for ways to make it easier. But limiting their play choices to only those that are clean and tidy is not one of them.
How to make the mess of real play a little more manageable
- Change your expectations. Having children is going to be messy, it just is. Gone are the days of sparkling floors and windows without sticky hand prints. Expect mess!
- Celebrate mess and what it means. Dirt, paint, toys on the floor, glitter permanently trapped in your carpet…all these things tell the story of a day of fun and play. Children learn through play, and the more you get comfortable with letting messy play happen the more freedom your children will feel, and the more benefit they will get out of it! Embrace mess! It is a sign of fun and learning.
- Set some boundaries. Let your kids know where it’s ok to make mess, and where it’s not. They will have the freedom to play without you worrying they’ll end up painting the TV. In our house, you are free to create art whenever you like, but it is done in the playroom or outside. Watercolour paints and play dough are ok for inside, but poster paint and clay are for outside. I have a two-year-old who likes to paint her body so that’s best done outside!
- Buy washable art supplies. Sometimes kids get caught up in the moment and a lovely picture gets drawn on a wall, oops! I only purchase washable art materials in case of this scenario.
- Be prepared. If you know things might get messy, prepare beforehand, e.g. if the kids want to paint, have a bucket ready to tip all the used brushes and cups into when they’re done, a tub for washing hands, and an old towel.
- Have play clothes. Save the good stuff for special occasions and let the kids dress in clothes you’re happy for them to get dirty. Most things will wash out, and if it doesn’t, who cares, it’s just going to get dirty again anyway.
- Pack spare clothes. And maybe a towel! Or have a bag always in the car for spontaneous messy play when out and about. We once went out for breakfast and the kids ended up having a swim at the beach in their clothes. It was unexpected and messy but they had the best fun so I’m glad I was prepared and didn’t have to say no to that.
- Join in. Dip your toes in the mud, do some painting, build a sand castle. And then all pile into the shower together after. Get amongst the mess, real play is fun for adults too.
I watch on as the girls squelch the mud between their toes, make mud pies, and do what children do best: play. Even the baby has joined in now. As I watch the joy on their faces I know I have made the right decision. Real play is about letting kids be kids, and embracing the messy moments. It’s about letting them play freely, without restriction. This is beautiful, messy, joyful, real play and learning. It’s only dirt. But it’s so much more.