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Don’t Clean Up Yet: Why Messy Play is Good for Kids

Put down the rag and embrace your kiddos’ mess: You may be helping their brain grow

“Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere! / Clean up, clean up, everybody does their share!”

You’re not alone if this supposedly cheerful little song strikes a bit of fear in your heart—and not just because it’s sometimes sung by a 6-foot-tall purple dinosaur with a perma-grin.

The toddlers at my son’s preschool always belted this song at high, wince-worthy decibels with as much (or more) aplomb than Barney. The tune was accompanied by a zither played by the very earnest, neat-freaky teacher. It signaled that class was nearly over, and the finger paints, sand box, train set, water station, dolls and all the other toys needed to go bye-bye to their rightful homes on the shelves until next time.

Typically, less than 90 seconds after the singing subsided, one of the tots would commence with an ear-splitting meltdown, and collective caterwauling ensued. Nobody wanted to clean up.

Tidying up meant that heading home was imminent, and that was for sure a contributing factor in the meltdowns. But research on child development points to an intriguing fact: Being surrounded by messy playthings can be good for kids’ brains and plays a key role in cognitive development.

The concept of children using play and exploration to make sense of their environment was championed most famously by Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist who coined the term "cognitive disequilibrium." A great example of this is when a baby or toddler encounters a soap bubble for the first time. It’s round, so in that sense, it's similar to any ball they've played with in the past. It should be able to be grabbed and thrown, right? Nope! When the bubble pops and dissipates, the child must make sense of that, and often does so joyfully, repeatedly testing that bubble burst over and over again.

Similarly, children know that a glass of milk will, if tipped over, spill and run all over the place. A cup of glue may look like milk, but its sticky, slow-to-pour nature is a wonder for kids to behold, and invites much deeper investigation.

It turns out that cleanup-averse, sticky-loving toddlers are onto something, whether or not they realize it. In fact, one study by Larissa Samuelson, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Iowa and head of the Language and Category Development Laboratory, showed that kids were about 20 percent better at learning new vocabulary words when they were in a playfully messy environment.

Alyssa Swan, a doctoral student at the University of North Texas in Denton, who also holds an MS degree in clinical counseling from Eastern Illinois University, conducts “purposeful, messy play” creative play sessions with children in the clinic where she works, the Center for Play Therapy.

She’s an enthusiastic proponent of allowing all kids to be free to explore as they’re instinctively apt to do—not only those who come to her clinic for help working through family conflict, trauma or sibling issues. “Kids are so sensory,” she says. “They really have an amazing way of being free with all their senses. As adults, we love orderliness and restrictions we’ve placed on ourselves, but kids aren’t in the same place [psychologically].”

The children in her clinic—a pioneer in the field of play therapy—use a number of potentially messy toys and materials to express themselves, including finger paints, an art station and a sand area.

"I see adults wanting kids to sit in an adult 'box,'" adds Swan. "We’ve grown out of that imaginative world, and we’re doing ourselves a disservice by asking kids to sit in our 'box.'"

Instead, the best box may be one filled with slimy, slippery spaghetti.

And you don’t need to build an entire sensory play station to encourage kids to explore our often messy world; it’s as easy as letting them paint with their toes, play with their food and—maybe just once—put clean-up time off till tomorrow. —by Erica Jorgensen