It’s Okay To Be Messy - 4 Simple Ways to Embrace Preschool Learning with Messy Materials

3 September 2019

it's ok to be messy - 4 ways to embrace early learning with messy materials

Preschoolers are young learners. Just like when you learn a new skill, you can expect it to be messy and sometimes out of control. This is all part of the learning process. For example, think back to when you were first learning to do something new, like typing on a keyboard. Making mistakes was all part of the learning process. And being messy is part of the learning process for your little one too! So, today I want to share some guidelines and realistic expectations to help make all the creative activities you do with your preschooler more natural, playful and relaxed. This way you can both enjoy the experience.

Before we dive in, as a general rule, remember that in all of your child’s creative activities, the process is more important than the product.  So, when your preschooler smears finger paint in every direction, what’s going on is your child’s exploration of the material itself. Even when your little one puts finger paint on their arms, face, and other body parts, it is all part of the discovery process. Remember, preschool children learn by doing, and in this case your child is learning how this particular material feels, works, looks, and what it can do. 

Here are 5 helpful guidelines for worrying less about mess and focusing on your child’s creative, learning process.

  1. Relax! The process of exploring materials involves your preschooler’s whole attention. The single best way to discourage your child’s learning and creativity is to show you’re worried about making a mess. Even if you don’t talk about the mess, your actions will tell your preschooler a lot about how you feel the “mess” their making. If you run for the paper towels in a panic or stiffen up when things get messy, you are creating a distraction. You’re actually interrupting their focus and their learning process. So take some deep breaths, smile, and say to yourself. “This is how my child is learning. It’s ok to be messy!”
  2. Know what materials to use by age. For toddlers and young 2s, keep it simple. Use a single color of material or tool to start with. This is important because at this early age, your child is just beginning to learn the qualities of the material or tool itself. Giving more than one color distracts your child from the process of discovering its capabilities. At this age, expect many, short experiments with new materials. For example, when using crayons initially, a toddler will make lots of random scribbles on many separate pieces of paper, creating a messy pile of scribbles. But all of this mess is essential because your toddler is discovering how crayons work. To encourage the discovery process, you can peel off the crayon’s paper so it can be used on all its sides. (You can learn more about scribbling stages in our Scribbling Isn’t Silly Guide right here!) Now, for older 3’s and 4’s, you can provide several colors or materials. By this age they have usually mastered the process of using basic materials and can more easily handle and explore using several colors. Providing new materials to use in combination with the familiar is another good way to encourage 3’s and 4’s creativity and experimentation. For example, using different kinds of materials to draw or paint on like tin foil, newspaper or wax paper, can help foster your preschooler’s creative exploring. An easy idea that spans materials and preschool ages is our Paper Towel Paintings activity.   
  3. Be prepared for messy activities. If your little one knows that they have a place where it’s okay to be totally messy, you will encourage your child’s creative process and early learning. For all ages, take the time to set up a place that’s perfect for messy activities, like a spot in the kitchen or even a spare closet. If you don’t have room to create a messy-place, spend a few dollars and buy large plastic tablecloths like this one found on to cover your work area. Gather paper towels or clean rags and keep them close by. And make it a habit to put on aprons or wear old clothing that won’t matter if they get dirty or stained. Check out our FAQ for more easy suggestions for making mess-friendly prep and “art clothes.”
  4. Get messy with your child. Embrace messiness in word and in action. It's time to put aside adult concerns about being messy and release your inner child by joining in the activity! Your being involved beside your preschooler is a clear message to your child that the process of discovery is positive and worthwhile. Getting involved shows that you encourage their exploration, too. So instead of cautioning your little one to “be careful” or “watch what you’re doing,” talk about what your child is doing. “Look at all the swirls you are making with the shaving cream finger paint! How does it feel?” And talk about how it feels for you to explore too!
  5. Make cleaning up a mess part of the fun. Your little one will definitely benefit by helping clean up after a messy project. Small muscles in the fingers, hands and wrists get good practice using a sponge to wipe up paint splotches. You can encourage left to right eye movement during the cleaning up too, for example, watch closely as you swipe a sponge left to right. This helps left to right eye tracking, an essential reading skill. And the fact that your little one is involved in cleaning up, sends the message that care for the environment is everyone’s responsibility, even for preschoolers! This everyday activity also helps prepare your preschooler for primary school, when this will be expected after all messy projects. So have some fun exploring the world of cleaning up too!

I hope that knowing how to embrace your preschooler’s messiness will result in more fun and exploration together. Need more helpful tips for supporting your preschooler’s messy learning? Check out our article, Children Learn By Doing - 4 Ways to Boost Early Education with Active Learning and Inspiration Not Perspiration - 5 Easy Ways to Fit Creative Projects into a Busy Preschool Day. Speaking of, our Crinkly Crumpled Paper Designs and Tissue Paper Tie Dye and activities are perfect for putting all of my messy suggestions into practice. Enjoy!