Children are messy! This is a common notion that we adults share. Whether they are playing with some blocks or washing their hands, whether they are painting or rolling up a rug, mess always seems to follow children. We instantly know there is evidence of a child’s handiwork wherever things are in disarray.
Trigger for a Reaction
Mess is something that throws many of us off. It is a cue for an elaborate clean up – no adult with a toddler needs to be told the scrubbing that has to be done following a painting session. Mess is something many of us struggle to look past because it requires effort to rectify, energy to restore and time to reset. Mess is not something we want to have time for because we associate mess with mischief, disrespect and unruly behavior. We think of mess as bad.
But, in early childhood, mess is not a sign of rebellion. It is a sign of learning, a sign of overwhelm, a sign of wanting some 1:1 time. In young children, mess is a reminder for observation.
Types of Mess
- The “ I’m learning” Mess
When a child is learning to do something by themselves, there is going to be a mess. This is a natural part of exploration and learning. We need to train our eyes to look at the mess and see what it symbolises. It is a sign of work. In the process of taking food from the plate to their mouth, their yet-to-be coordinated body, their yet-to-gain finesse hands have spilled some or most of the meal. This type of mess is the remnant of a child at work.
How to help?
We help by first not saying, “Oh my god! Look at what a mess you have made. This is why I prefer to brush your teeth myself!” Likewise, there is also no need to tell this child that the mess is a sign that they are learning. Instead, what we can actually do is look at this child.
- Is this child a baby, a toddler or an older child of 4 or 5 years?
- Can this child help you in the clean up? If so, is this child actually going to clean up without your prompt?
If they are going to clean up, we just wait. Else, we swoop in and say, “Okay, so you have finished washing your hands. I notice some water here. How about we get that purple sponge and clean it up?” If this is a baby who cannot yet help, we can offer a piece of cloth for them to hold and also model how to clean up. Yes, this is hard work! But we need to remind ourselves that we are setting the tone for future initiatives by this child. When this baby becomes able and ready, they can collaborate in fixing the mess.
- The “ I have too much” Mess
Another kind of mess happens often with children who have too much. For this, we need to understand that our level of too much and the child’s level of too much are not the same. If we have a book cabinet with about 30 books, we can look for the title we want from the mix and move on to reading the chosen book. But, even we struggle nowadays, I must say. Everytime we are on Netflix, we take hours just deciding which movie to watch. If this is true for us, then it is even more true for little children. They need limitations.
When we have all their toys dumped in a tub inside a playpen, there is going to be a mess. This is a kind of mess that is detrimental to progress because it curbs exploration. It leads to a child jumping from one to another, banging, throwing, screaming and creating further mess – signs of the child coping with the mess.
How to help?
We help by offering this child the much needed limitation. Have a look at what draws the child and choose 3 – 5 toys that support or aid this. Put everything else away in a closet, out of the child’s sight! Now, these chosen toys can be arranged very neatly on a mat on the floor, under the centre table, on a low cabinet or shelf. The toys can be rotated when we feel the child is seeking new challenges.
- The “ I need some attention” Mess
This happens to almost all of us several times a day. Adults have a lot of responsibilities around the house – we have to wash the dishes, fold the clothes, take that important call and we cannot give children our full attention all the time. And, we needn’t! But, when the child is creating a mess, it is a sign that they need help. It is not a time to ignore the child or the mess as this child needs help to fix the mess, to fix that feeling of wanting to create the mess. It is a reminder to stop.
How to help?
If this is a toddler or an older child and you have to take that important call, talk to them. Tell them, “Amma really needs to talk to this client. I will be with you as soon as I am done. You can bring a nice book over here and read it. We can look at it again after I am done.” They may be able to wait or they may not, depending on the situation and prior experience with waiting. Once you are done, you can go over and give them that 1:1 time to calm their energies.
It is important to stop because we first need to calm the energies, calm the need to make that mess. Children also need bites of 1:1 time with us during the day. This will calm, ground and secure them, readying them for periods of play.
- The “ I’m curious” Mess
Young children are learning. They are learning that when they release their hold, that piece of potato will fall splat on the floor, that when they turn the tap fully, water is going to flow at full force. This mess is similar to a child who is learning. However, this mess may happen because of a curiosity to know what happens if? This is a way to understand that their actions impact their world.
How to help?
We help by showing the child how to fix the mess once the curious exploration comes to an end. This is very similar to the, “I’m learning mess” and requires the same kind of assistance in resolving.
Looking beyond the Chaos
Understanding where children are in their development, observing their actions and the motives behind them will help us form a bigger picture of their mess.
The child’s order and disorder, the successes he attains, depend often on one’s ability to observe the least particulars, because only through doing will the result be satisfactory.”Maria Montessori, The Child in the Family
As we have seen, mess is a sign of work, a sign of learning, a sign of exploration, a sign of having waited. Mess is a sign of growth.