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A Fine Mess
Despite appearances, messy play can make an enormous contribution to babies' and young children's cognitive and creative development.
What do we think about when we hear the word 'messy'? Untidy, muddled, disorganised, confused, cluttered, shambolic, disordered, disarray or perhaps the instruction, 'Don't make a mess'.The word messy is often given negative meanings and calling an important aspect of play 'messy' can lead to it being undervalued. This guide aims to reclaim messy play as an important part of early years provision and demonstrate its importance for young children's learning and development.In this article
To mess about is to play with something and it is through play - which is part of the creative process - that children learn and develop. Children are being creative when they use materials in new ways, combine previously unconnected materials and make discoveries that are new to them, and messy play enables children to do all these things. It is this aspect of messy play that we want to emphasise, and our definition of messy play at Thomas Coram is: play that emphasises the active exploration of materials and their properties.
Messy play involves:
children using all their senses in the process of exploration, especially the sense of touch
offering children plenty of opportunity to mould and manipulate materials
not having a focus on making or producing something.
This sort of play is important because its lack of a focus on making or producing something leaves the child free to explore all sorts of possibilities. It taps into children's innate curiosity about the world around them and their strong desire to explore and find out more.
By giving children messy play opportunities, we give them the opportunity to explore materials fully. Messy play is also enjoyable; we have only to look at children freely exploring water and paint to see their enjoyment and, stresses, enjoyment is a good thing and something to aspire to and encourage in all early years settings.
One word associated with 'messy' is 'confused', and it seems to me that confusion can be a very good thing. The creative process is characterised by risk taking, trying things out and experimenting, and an insight often occurs at the very moment when we are confused and have to look deeper. For me, there is a strong link between the process involved in messy play and Piaget's concept of cognitive disequilibrium. Cognitive disequilibrium is when thinking has to change to incorporate new information. Children's interpretation of the world is challenged when they take on new information and find that they now have two contradictory views of the same event.
Messy play, therefore, brings benefits to all children's learning. However, it has particular benefits for particular groups.
It offers [children new to a setting] a way to become involved and get to know other children. As this sort of play does not rely on words, children who are in the process of acquiring English as an additional language can join in and use the materials with their peers. There is no 'right' way to play with cornflower or dough and children with special needs and disabilities are able to use these open-ended materials in their own way as part of the group.
Addressing the Obstacles
Despite all the contributions messy play can make to children's learning and development there does seem to be a reluctance to promote messy play in some settings. One reason may be the associations with such words as muddled, confused and shambolic. This has led to this type of play being seen as unimportant and undervalued.
The neglect of such play may be connected with our own and other people's anxieties about children making a mess - what will other people think? How will the caretaker react? Will parents be cross if their children's clothes are spoiled?
The lack of focus on an end product may also deter some people. As someone asked me recently, 'Can I really put "exploring materials" as a learning objective on my plan? Wouldn't people want to see more?'
Lack of control and things getting out of hand is another worry for some practitioners. Allowing
children to explore freely needn't lead to anarchy if the adults are well prepared, actively involved in supporting the children and leave plenty of time to tidy up - something I know from personal experience.
Always remember to check materials for potential dangers and do not leave children unsupervised. For example, check for chemicals in wallpaper paste, think about the size of materials such as lentils to avoid choking. When using foods, check for allergies and dietary requirements. materials such as paint, clay or water. In turn, some parents are confused by practitioners'
The outdoors offers all sorts of wonderful possibilities for messy play.
Children can make the most of natural resources and work on a bigger scale than indoors. For example, children can:
dig deep in sand and soil
make and explore mud, in particular making mud pies
splash in puddles and explore water in paddling pools
move water using guttering, pumps and pipes
mix large amounts of sand and water.
Some people assume that by three years old children should have left messy play behind and be doing something constructive such as making things.
However, messy play continues to offer [older] children many opportunities for learning.
Personal, social and emotional development
Includes self-confidence and self-esteem, social development including making relationships, and emotional development including self-control.
Messy play builds on children's curiosity and encourages a positive approach to new experiences. Children display a high level of involvement and can select and use resources independently. In messy play, children can develop concentration, problem-solving, planning and seeing things through to completion.
Working with others fosters self-respect, and respect for others. It helps children to share, interact, observe others and to understand that there needs to be agreed values and codes of behaviour for groups to work together harmoniously.
Messy play also offers children opportunities to represent experiences, feelings and thoughts.
Communication, language and literacy
Includes language for communicating and listening, reading and writing.
Messy play offers opportunities for children to speak and listen, for example, when sharing resources. Children use words and/or gestures to communicate and the informal context encourages confidence. Such play provides meaningful opportunities for children to talk through activities, reflect and modify actions, negotiate plans and activities and to take turns in conversation.
Understanding the process of representation through making marks with materials and ascribing meanings to them leads to understanding the symbolic nature of written language.
Messy play develops the fine motor skills needed for writing, for example, hand-eye coordination.
The narrative skills necessary for storytelling are developed as children start to tell stories using materials.
Includes counting, calculating shape, space and measure.
Messy play offers meaningful opportunities for counting. For example, in sharing out resources and responding to questions such as, 'Who has more/ fewer?'
Children learn about concepts of shape, size, line and area as they sort objects and develop their interest in shape and space by playing with shapes or making arrangements with objects.
They can explore spatial concepts and use everyday words to describe position.
Sequencing events and objects, for example, when creating a pattern on a piece of clay, help children to understand patterns. Children use language such as heavier or lighter to compare quantities and methods to solve practical problems.
Knowledge and understanding of the world
Includes exploration, investigation, designing and making skills.
Messy play fosters children's interest in the world in which they live and offers them opportunities to investigate when presented with unfamiliar resources with differing properties.
Children can observe, select and manipulate objects and materials and identify simple features, similarities and differences, using all of the senses as appropriate. Messy play encourages children to set their own challenges, to problem solve and find out about cause and effect.
Includes movement and using equipment, tools and materials.
Children can develop and practise fine motor control and co-ordination through using and handling tools, objects and malleable materials safely and in a meaningful context. They are also developing body control, poise, balance, co-ordination and control in large and small movements through messy play on a large scale, such as transporting water and sand around the garden.
Includes exploring media and materials, imagination and responding to experiences.
Messy play fosters children's interest in and allows them to respond to what they see, hear, smell, touch and feel. They notice what adults do and can imitate what is observed. They can explore and respond to different media and sensory experiences. As materials become familiar, they use them in representational play. They express and communicate ideas, thoughts and feelings and explore colour, texture, shape, form and space in two or three dimensions.
Source: All About…Messy Play
by Bernadette Duffy, head of Thomas Coram Centre for Children and Families
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