Muddy faces, dusty jeans, water soaked shoes and paint stained t-shirts were common occurrences during my childhood. As a father now myself, I better understand the innate internal struggle my mother must have felt as she lovingly allowed my siblings and I to engage in unstructured (messy) play, knowing full well that there would be unpleasant clean-up to follow! The roles are now reversed and it is now I that must make the effort not to interfere as I watch my young children investigate and explore the “messy” world around them. The importance of this unstructured play is very well researched and is considered crucial to children’s creativity and over-all development.
Truly creative “messy” play is based on allowing children to fully engage their senses during the process of exploration and investigation. It involves materials that can be molded or manipulated and must not focus on the expectation of a final product or result. This type of play cannot occur in sterile or highly structured environments where the child’s ability to govern and make decisions is limited or artificially obstructed. As a child engages in creative play they do not experience pressure to perform and thus do not worry about pleasing others or achieving a goal attached to perceived or real constraints.1 Peter Gray, Ph.D. explained this well when he wrote, “in free play, children do what they want to do, and the learning and psychological growth that result are byproducts, not conscious goals of the activity.4 Children have the ability to be entirely engaged in activities that they enjoy and that, unbeknownst to them, are actually benefiting them and their skill sets.
One of the significant benefits of unstructured play is its encouragement of creative problem solving through natural processes. This act of resolving problems, sometimes in group settings, results in children with greater resilience, confidence, decision making abilities and more accurate perceptions of the world around them.2 Play also affords children opportunities to discover knowledge for themselves which in turn becomes personal experience. Experiences gained in this manner are highly valued, highly imaginative, self- evaluated, and more vivid in children’s minds. Teachers of young children often document that curriculum utilizing these types of activities result in more curious students who are interested in discovery and exploration and who are more open-minded.3
In addition to creative problem solving, and perhaps even more important, mental health of children can benefit greatly from creative play. A steady decline in the mental health of our society’s youth has been documented over the years, but Dr. Gray suggests this alarming trend can be combated in part through play. In addition to the items mentioned above, through play, children’s mental health will benefit from opportunities of dealing with social interactions, regulating emotions, exerting self-control, following rules and experiencing joy.4 All of these effects are the result of creative play and in the end promote mental health.
The concept of unstructured and messy play does not, however, mean that adults take a back seat or hands-off approach to play. Adult presence can be very valuable and often enjoyable for children. Adults can be a part of the play experience in a variety of ways:
- First and foremost, the adult must be willing to allow free exploration and the consequences that result from it. Be involved but not in the middle of things. (Do not confuse consequences with safety. The adult should always provide safe places for play);
- second, adults may need to provide materials or locations within which creative play may occur;
- third, adults should pose open-ended questions, to no one in particular, for the sole-purpose of stimulating thought and further exploration. (“I wonder why…”, etc.)1;
- fourth, adults need to learn with and from children. Documenting the events in some form will help the adult reflect back on play events resulting in a more responsive and engaging experience the next time.2 Children will also benefit from a reminder of past experiences.
- fifth, unfortunately, often clean-up or maintenance is required. This can be minimized if activities occur outdoors, in designated play areas, or if provisions are made ahead of time for quick clean-up (wash basins, hose bibs, dropcloths, etc.).
Though it is sometimes hard for us as adults to relax and encourage or let creative play occur, the benefits of letting our children experience internal and external freedom during play will reveal all sorts of fascinating and magical opportunities that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. For the benefit of our children… let’s get messy!
by Chad Kennedy, ASLA
1-Duffy,Bernadette.All About…Messy Play.Nursery World,4th November.p15-22.
2-Craft,Anna.Creativity and Possibility in the Early Years.The University of Exeter and the Open University.
3- DFES.Excellence and Enjoyment:A Strategy for Primary Schools.London.2003.
4-Gray, Peter.The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents.American Journal of Play,vol.3,num.4.2011
Mr. Kennedy is a private practice landscape architect in Modesto, CA. His expertise in inclusive (universal) play has been a key factor in the development of his professional career. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.