It seems like from the moment they arrive on the scene, it's hard-coded in our kids' DNA that they must make a shambles out of everything around them. Experts say that the benefits of letting your kid make a mess range from helping expand their creative development to boosting their developing immune systems. So put down your cleaning supplies for just a minute and consider the scientific information that supports a more relaxed approach to mess — no matter what your mother-in-law says.
That's right, scientific information. In September 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report called The Power of Play which went so far as to suggest that pediatricians "... write a prescription for play at well visits." The most beneficial type of play is child-driven and unstructured, says Dr. Elizabeth Harstad, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and an instructor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. This type of play "can be beneficial to children’s development, to their executive functioning, to their motor skills... to their development as a whole child."
"So I definitely think there are benefits to allowing children to make a mess," Dr. Harstad adds.
Dr. Julia Torquati, interim chair of the Child, Youth and Family Studies Department at the University of Nebraska, agrees, saying that the key is having materials available and accessible for experimentation — and that can add up to some serious disarray.
"For developing creativity, it's important that the child has materials around that you can put together and combine in a variety of different ways," Dr. Torquati says, referring not only to art supplies but also to things like a dress-up box or even a box of used kitchen supplies, old boxes — "props" for the child to explore, use, and combine. "Using materials to create spaces and play routines is probably going to be a messy endeavor, and we're talking not just in the house but also the yard."
As far as outside, Dr. Torquati likes the idea of a "mud kitchen," a fun DIY outside play space for kids that's designed to engage their senses. With "mud" right there in the name, you know this one's going to be messy, but Dr. Torquati notes that it's also a good example of "negotiating the boundaries of the mess. You can do this, but let's agree what the space is for this activity." Then, the mess does not creep all over your yard or your home.
In fact, that's her number-one tip for managing with the stuff-related chaos that comes with kids: Have physical boundaries for it, spaces where the stuff can live, and spaces where it's prohibited (say, maybe your den and your bedroom). With four children, she adds that picking your battles is also important: If you have a particular issue that you want to stand firm on — hers is no toy guns in the house — you can use this as a lesson in boundaries.
As for Dr. Emhart, who coincidentally also has four children, she encourages parents to remember that childhood lasts for only a very short time, and that a managed mess is building your children's minds. "It really is important, from a developmental standpoint, that children have the space, freedom, and opportunity to play with toys in an appropriate space," she says. "If you can, try to let some of that mess go. It’s better for the children to have opportunities for free and creative play in an environment that’s not neat as a pin than it is for a house to be spotless where all kids are all on electronics."
These are just some of the pros that come with letting your kid get messy:
1. Kids Grow Creatively With The Added Stimulation
Both doctors emphasized the importance of unstructured play to a child's creative development. The toys used in this type of play don't have to be expensive, either: The time-honored tale of the baby who gets a present at the holidays and seems more fascinated with the box than the present — that's actually unstructured creative play going on right there. The child's mind is coming up with and examining other uses for the box. Is it a fort? A hat? A drum? If you had a grandmother who sat you down on the kitchen floor with all the pots and pans and a wooden spoon, this is also what was occurring — and yes, that was messy, but your brain was growing, too.
2. Motor Skills Improve With Tearing Stuff Apart And Putting It Away
Unstructured play and even just putting the toys used in such play away also helps develop motor skills. The AAP report The Power of Play uses the example of the many ways a child interacts with a banana: The child may put it to her ear to use as a phone, which involves both lifting it and placing it appropriately (that's also working the imagination to envision it as a phone); or, she could just bang it on the counter to make noise; or, an older child could try to peel it and hold it out to you to ask for a bite. There are all kinds of motor skills involved in just those small interactions, and putting toys together and tearing them down to put them away are critically important times for such development.
3. He Develops A Sense Of Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries for kids is extremely important, and a bit of controlled chaos can provide an excellent object lesson in this area. "Have an area (for play) where the toys can go into a bin or a box that’s really accessible to the child so they toys aren't put out of reach all day, but also that they're not strewn everywhere," suggests Dr. Harstad. This helps a child learn that they have autonomy over their belongings, but also that they are responsible for them, and that there are boundaries around their use — i.e., that they must be put back into the bin if the child expects to have them available to play with the next day. Learning this can be a slow process, but it will work.
4. It's A Good Way To Teach Responsibility
Giving your child some agency around how clean and mess-free their own room is kept is becoming very trendy. The doctors say that this can teach responsibility, but such a strategy should be administered with guidelines. "They’re practicing with (their room), so we can help them develop the life skills they need to be responsible for their own space, or else their life is going to be chaos," says Dr. Torquati. "They may not live up to our standards, but we need to respect when they're doing the best they can (at any given stage)," adds Dr. Harstad. "And detailed guidelines can be helpful for some kids who have trouble figuring out how to pick up a messy room."
5. Their Immune System Gets A Boost
The "hygiene hypothesis" tells us that keeping our kids in overly clean, sterilized environments is the wrong move — that when they get down and dirty a little more often, their immune systems develop more fully. Dr. Torquati is an advocate of getting kids outside and says there's anecdotal evidence that this may be true: "Kids who live in rural areas and have direct contact with soil get a lot of beneficial microbes, and that exposure seems to be really favorable for building immunity." So get out there in your mud kitchens, people!