If you ever need to learn how to make a mess in the quickest, most thorough way possible, we know of several High Hopes classrooms that house the experts on the subject. Bet you know some too – they’re called toddlers, and when it comes to making messes, they are pros.
We’ve got every variety of mess-maker here. You see, there are several specializations in the mess-making profession.
You’ve got your mouthers. That’s the one where whatever is on the floor gets picked up and put straight into a mouth. It might be food, or it might be a toy, or it might be a piece of fuzz. Maybe it’ll go in their own mouth, maybe it’ll go in a friend’s mouth, but it’s going into a mouth, that’s for sure. The more drool, the better. If you can get a little snot into the mix, that’s a job very well done.
Then there are the dumpers, a teacher’s personal favorite. Dumpers like to go to the box with the most toys, especially ones that are small and plentiful. Then they pick up the entire box, turn it over, and let gravity do its work. Magnificent! If they come across a container of rolling toys, forget about it. New. Favorite. Game.
And let’s not forget the squish-and-smearers. These mess-makers use food as their preferred medium, although in a pinch, playdough or paint will suffice. The concept is simple: take something malleable or viscous, grind it under your hand, and then, voila! Your hand is a paintbrush, and everything you can reach is your canvas. These children work in applesauce like artists work in oil paints.
Open container of liquid? Hi, that’s on the floor now. Squashed raisin on the floor? Bonus snack time! Crayons or markers left in reach? Hope you like graffiti.
If you’re the parent or caretaker of a professional mess-maker, it can get really overwhelming really fast. The frustration is hard to tamp down when it seems like they’re doing it on purpose, like the mess is never-ending and spontaneously multiplies, like you’ll never experience that mythical feeling of “clean” again.
But there is a method to the mess-making madness, beyond the fact that it’s just fun to be destructive sometimes. Maybe if we can understand a little more of the why behind the mess, it won’t be so exasperating.
What’s Going On?
The preschool staff recently completed an online training module for the State of Tennessee pertaining to brain growth. It contained a lot of interesting information about how the brain grows and develops, scientifically and psychologically.
The take-away was that early intervention is HUGE. From the moment a baby is born, and even while still in the womb, a child’s brain is in a state of constant, rapid growth. Within the first year of life, a child’s brain reaches 50% of its adult weight. By age three, the brain has typically grown to 80% of its adult weight. And during the first three years of life, it is estimated that a child’s brain develops 700 neural connections per second!
As we age, our neural processes slow down, and our brain’s ability to add new connections and grow diminishes. But those first three years of 24/7 brain-growing are a whirlwind.
So how does this relate to the messes? Well, all that brain growth basically translates externally to one over-arching thing in a child: exploration. Children are constantly exploring their environment. They have to learn what the rules of their environment are, how they can influence those rules, what they can and cannot get away with.
A quick look at developmental standards for early childhood drives this idea home. It’s expected, even encouraged, for a child to make messes during their exploring. In fact, when a child starts to get intentionally messy, it’s often a good sign, development-wise.
As we dive into the typical standards of development for early childhood, we want to make one thing clear. If your child has special needs, the timeline outlined below may not match what you’re seeing from your little Magellan.
You need to know that even if they aren’t doing these things at the expected ages, every child is expected to get messy during certain developmental periods. Those periods may not occur at exactly the same time or in exactly the same way for any given child. But if your kiddo is making messes, no matter their age or ability level, that is 100%, totally, natural.
What Are They Learning?
To find out what our little mess-makers are really accomplishing in terms of learning, we’ll take a look at the TN-ELDS.
The TN-ELDS (or, Tennessee Early Learning Developmental Standards) are a collection of standards for child development published by the State of Tennessee as a guide for parents and caregivers. They are a loose approximation of developmental learning stages and behaviors grouped together by concept and age range. And in just about every section, there’s something about being messy somewhere.
Take the first section: Approaches to Learning. This section deals with how children learn overall. In that section, we are told that children ages 13-24 months will start to “[a]ttempt new things with adult support.” For example, a child in this age range might start to “[t]ouch and experiment with different textures,” and try previously untested foods, especially if a trusted adult encourages them to do so.
We are told in another section, that of Social Emotional Development, that children in this age range are also in the prime time to start “test[ing] social boundaries… limits and expectations to find out who is in charge.”
This is why it often feels so personal when a child starts making a mess. Sometimes even when they know you are there and that you disapprove, and sometimes because they know that, they make their mess anyway. And they are proud of it. And that’s actually a good thing when it comes to their brains! They are starting to learn what it feels like to have “power and pride,” and they are simultaneously learning the social consequences of their choices.
But the majority of what children are learning when they make a mess actually has to do with the parts of their brains that will later be involved in learning science and math.
Just look at the standard for 25-to-36-month-olds in the Math section on Problem-Solving and Analyzing Data, which tells us that children will experiment with “simple acts of cause and effect.” This stage means kids are doing all kinds of mischievous things. They’ll crawl into cabinets and climb bookshelves, they’ll flip light switches on and off and play in the sinks and toilets, and they’ll even “drop items to watch them fall.”
In science, the TN-ELDS warn us that children in that same 13-24 months range will “begin to mix, fill, and dump materials in containers,” and “demonstrate interest in water, sand,” and other materials. They’ll be “observ[ing] how objects move” and imitating adults.
This is because these children are expected to “[u]se exploration as a means of understanding and processing differences and similarities,” and it’s through that exploration that they will start to gain a real understanding of cause and effect.
It’s important to remember that the messes come before the understanding.
Children aren’t expected to start sorting, for example, until at least age three or later. They won’t necessarily remember where things belong until that same stage. They are only expected to start strongly identifying differences between objects between ages two and four.
Personality will come to bear on the issue -- some kiddos will really take to being clean and neat, and some of them will stay kinda messy forever.
But no matter the preference, rest assured that there will come a day when your young Marco Polos and Vespuccis will be able to use the knowledge they acquire through their mess-making to start getting a handle on cleaning and organizing.
Embrace The Mess!
Recall the days when you were a city planner for entire kingdoms of Legos (also when you were Godzilla to those kingdoms). Try to remember what it felt like as a kid to run through rain puddles and squish your fingers in mud. Revisit fingerpainting – it’s still fun!
The best thing we can do for our messy children is to teach them when it’s a good time to make a mess, and when it’s not acceptable. That means we do need to provide them with appropriate times to make messes!
Spread some butcher paper on the floor, strip them down to their diapers, and let them walk or crawl through washable paint all over that ready-made drop-cloth. Squirt a big dollop of shaving cream on a table, hard floor, or high chair tray and let them squish and smear it all they like! Get them a poncho and rain boots and go puddle-splashing after the next good rain.
The more positive outlets they have for that essential exploration, the better!
Whether they’re a mouther, a dumper, or a squisher, a child is first and foremost an explorer, and we can help them with a little patience, a lot of creativity, and a mountain of forgiveness and understanding along their journey of discovery.
 Tennessee Child Care Online Training System. Building Strong Brains: Tennessee's ACEs Initiative- 3 HR. 2010. Online Training. 14 December 2017. <https://www.tccots.com/Templates/PlainText.aspx?CompletedPageId=e85046cc-a09d-45b7-a135-4b01734f4592>.
 Tennessee Department of Education. "Revised Tennessee Early Learning Developmental Standards: Birth-48 months." October 2013. www.TN.gov. Electronic Document (.pdf). 8 February 2018. <https://www.tn.gov/education/instruction/academic-standards/early-learning-development-standards.html>