5 reasons why making a mess is important for learning!
Reason One: We make connections.
When I was about 14, I was really into making zines. You know, DIY magazines that involved a lot of cutting up papers, writing poems, gluing and collaging them together and passing them out to friends. I would sit at the eye of a paper-hurricane, with...trash, essentially, extending out around me. But as I was working, I would see pieces that I would want to use, and re-purpose them into my zine. If I was cleaning as I went, those connections would not have been possible.
I've seen this a thousand times with kids. They are riding their scooters in the backyard, see the chalk that was left out, and then make a game where they have to ride between the lines they draw. They play house or make-believe, incorporating the original playhouse pieces, and the lego minifigs, and make furniture out of Playdoh. Making connection like this is good for our brains. It increases our ability to see connections in other parts of our lives and increases our creativity. We also increase our divergent thinking - which is critical for problem solving and learning!
Reason Two: We get all our senses involved.
Learning requires neural connections. We obtain and retain information and understanding better when we have a rich, sensory learning experience. For example, compare the experience between a kid who get to dig in the dirt, plant seeds, water them, smell the leaves of the tomato plants, touch the wriggly worms, and taste the tomatoes once they're ripe to a kid who reads about the growth cycle of a tomato plant on a worksheet, sitting inside in a classroom. The second one is a lot easier to clean up. It's also nowhere near the rich, all-encompassing and memorable experience of the first. The first scenario also leads to so many conversations and connections. What goes into the dirt? Why do we need to water? What do worms do? What is the difference between this plant and that plant? So much can come up with kids are having a tactile, messy experience.
Reason Three: We push limits and allow for mistakes.
There is a long list of inventions that only exist because a happy accident occurred. We learn a lot of things when we allow for failure. This week my kids and I went to an adventure playground, where they have hundreds of giant lego-esque blocks for building. The kids love to build forts and castles, and knock them down. They are in haphazard piles all over the park - some structures are standing, some are the ruins of elaborate castles from the day before. It's inviting and welcoming. If they were stacked neatly behind an adult who only allowed kids to check out 10 at a time, it would impede the scale of their building, damage their ambition, and definitely harm their imagination. Instead, they build towers that are not always structurally sound, and yelp in glee as they topple. They learn cause and effect. They learn what happens when they try to go higher or bigger. They learn so much, and it can be so messy.
Reason Four: We are less stressed.
Learning doesn't happen under pressure. Learning doesn't happen when we are stressed, distressed, worried, preoccupied, coerced... if your kids know that you are going to lose your mind if they spill, if you're all worried about the footprints or combining the paint colors, or whatever the thing is - it takes away from the learning opportunity. Parents, I'm not saying you need to let your whole house turn into a ceramic studio, but think creatively about ways and places to allow plenty of happy, relaxed mess to happen! Maybe wait a few years to get the new furniture. Maybe there are places in your house you can dedicate to projects, with a door to close when you want. Maybe you can do a little exploration about why messes bother you and what you're doing if you pass that on to your kids.
Bonus: We relax with cathartic, tactile experiences. Go squish your feet in the mud, too. Go finger paint. Let your kids use face paint all over your arms and legs. There is something absolutely refreshing and rejuvenating about making creative messes with your kids. It opens the door to more learning.
Reason Five: We allow ourselves uninterrupted time.
If we are worried about making messes, we often stop and clean up before real learning happens. Schools have done something particularly damaging to our understanding of learning: They have separated subjects and ring a bell when we are supposed to move on from one thing to another. Our brains work best when topics are integrated, when lots of connections are being made, and our neural pathways are being strengthened through repeated exposure to lots of ideas in varied ways. Our brains often need time, a lot of time, to sink into an experience and really internalize our understanding. Real learning involves a lot more than memorizing facts. Real learning takes experimentation (which is often messy). Real learning takes failure (also messy).
Mess is one of the barriers I write about in my book, Connect with Courage. By the time we have kids, most of us have some strong internalized messaging about the value (or not) of messes, so I get it if it's hard. But I hope this post has encouraged you to go out and have a little messy fun with your kids, for the sake of some seriously wonderful learning!
Roya Dedeaux, making messes from the beginning. Thanks mom. <3