I used to be a bit averse to my daughter getting very dirty. I suffered for her clothes, for having to give her a bath afterwards, for the house. My priorities have change and for that I have to thank, among other things, Playcentre. This is quite a unique organisation of early childhood education centres run by parents, set up in New Zealand many years ago. I learned a lot just attending one of the centres but best of all, they offer free education for families in order to learn all together and have the knowledge to contribute running the centres.
So going back to messy play… the other day, looking through some old things, we found some poster paints that we had forgotten about. Instantly my daughter felt like using them, so when in the past I would have doubted, I confidently thought ‘yes, we just need to find the right place and set it up appropriately’. That meant setting the painting things in an old coffee table that we had put outside just for these purposes, and taking her clothes off. I still couldn’t avoid telling her to paint only on the paper (I won’t next time!) but after a while, there was paint in her body and she had also painted the climbing fort she has next to the ‘messy table’.
I thought ‘cool, she is having fun, exploring her body, changing it, decorating her fort… lots of learning going on!’. So I was even a bit proud of myself for having changed my mind set about messy play, painting her skin and even things like the fort. It was very interesting to see my husband’s reaction though. He didn’t like it. He reminded me of myself a while back and I totally understand why he didn’t like it – when not used to it and when not understanding the learning that is going on it just seems an inappropriate thing to do, painting herself and the already ok-looking fort. But then, think about it. It was non-toxic poster paint, totally washable. Even on the fort, exposed to rain and sun, it wouldn’t last for long. And what if it did? It is her fort, isn’t she allowed to decorate it the way she wants? I think yes.
I enjoyed watching her immerse on delicately painting different parts of her body in different colours. There was a lot concentration, fine motor skills work, experimenting with her image. The learning was amazing and she wasn’t hurting anyone or anything so, why not? I often find myself going back to this idea of ‘if she is not hurting anything or anyone then it is probably ok’, which I found in ‘It’s OK not to share… and other renegade rules for raising competent and compassionate kids’ by Heather Shumaker.
Still we had to ask her not to come in the house with the paint. Some things cannot be done and that is totally ok – even necessary to understand how our social world works -, but we need to let them find the space (that means the place, time and way that doesn’t hurt anyone or anything) to do as much as they need for it is their right to do what they want with their life and to learn the things that interest them in the way they find appropriate. So as much as we can, let’s let them be messy. It is not just about getting dirty, it is learning through being messy. And if doing it at home it is too much for some of us, then let’s find a space where they can do it. I found Playcentre and now I feel very comfortable with it at home too.