Making a mess is part of childhood. Children naturally become engaged in activities that have many pieces, face it, messes are a creative outlet for children. So, I say, celebrate the mess! Enjoy the fact that your child is engaged, using his hands, eyes, fine and gross motor skills, sense of sequence, story telling, architectural skills, spatial relationships, and sense of wonder. It's all good.
Here are some guidelines to help parents cope with messy activities.
- If your child is truly engaged in an activity, don't interrupt. Take advantage of these opportunities, your child is developing focus and concentration, skills that are valuable. Give your child a 10 minute warning before he or she needs to stop working, then again at 5 minutes. It is beneficial to prepare children for upcoming events and also for the end of activities.
- Define the activity area. At school we use floor mats about the size of a small welcome mat or throw rug to define the space for the child in which the child keeps his or her materials. Other children know to walk around these mats so as not to disturb the child's work. You can do this at home, use a beach towel, or if a larger space is needed a sheet to define the area where your child can work.
- Only one messy activity at a time. This means one activity needs to be cleaned up and put away before a new activity is taken out. This is probably the most challenging guideline. Children can be "trained" to clean up after themselves if parents make it a partnership and are consistent about doing it. At first divide the work with your child. You might say "I will pick up the blocks (legos, crayons, markers, paper scraps etc) on this side, and you clean up the ones on that side." As the child gets older he or she can take on more of the clean up activity.
- Shy away from comment such as "Good Job!" Praise is a tricky subject. Children know when they deserve genuine praise. Comments such as "Good job" are not specific and don't recognize a child's individual effort. I recommend that you ask the child to come up with the praise. Even young children can answer the questions, "How do you think we did on clean up?", "Do you think we made a good team?" and "Are you proud of the job we did together?" This gives the child ownership of the evaluation.
- Ask Permission. There can be certain activities in your home that children must ask permission to do before diving in. You and your family can decide which ones these are. Painting comes to mind. Siblings should also ask permission to join an activity that another child has already begun. Learn to respect your child's wishes if he or she wants to work alone. Help your child learn to politely say, "I would like to do this by myself today. We can do something together later." Make sure they follow through on an activity with the sibling later.