Her words rang so true:  “Belinda, you really have to get over this mess thing!

I had asked an acquaintance, a veteran Kindergarten worker, to give me some ideas for my fourth child, a boy, with low concentration span and unlimited energy.  I was looking for things to keep him occupied throughout the day.  She came and talked the morning with me.  Most ideas she gave me I had read about, most materials she suggested I had in my art cupboard, a few projects I had even attempted.  It soon became apparent that my so called “problem” was not a “how-to” or even a “what-to” when it came to my 4 to 5 year old son – it was really a problem of MESS.  I couldn’’t bring myself to let him do these creative projects because of mess.

She was so right.  It isn’’t that I had a perfectly tidy, worthy of a magazine home -– far from it.  But I struggled to intentionally allow a mess to be made.  It seems to contradict everything I worked for as a housekeeper.

And though I am both – I know which one I want to be remembered for.

Here are some of my thoughts that have helped me in allowing creative mess to happen in our home…

1. I try to teach the children how to set up their activity, and keep things clean/tidy (as the activity permits) as they go along.  Eg.  I teach them to wipe their rubber stamps when they are finished their image, before they choose their next stamp.  I teach them to soak their glue brushes when done.  I teach them to use messy-mats when appropriate etc.  The issue we are working on now is to clean up the surface they want to work on before they start their new project – that is, put other stuff away and give themselves room to work rather than squeezing inbetween and around other stuff!

2. I saw the cleaning up as a training opportunity so they were to be involved in that as much as possible.  Eg.  A little person can pick up little bits of paper after a cutting exercise as well as a bigger person!  I put a big bucket of water ready for any painting tools – little people can wash these up.  I actually found that this in a sense extended the activity, first they painted, and then they had coloured water play as they cleaned up!

3. I make sure I have time to clean up the mess if it is going to be bigger than their ability to clean up.  Eg.  After a play dough session I vacuum the flour and scraps of dry play dough.    As the children get older this is something that they take on themselves but when they were younger I used this as my guide to see if it was the appropriate time for the activity this takes away the stress though you need to watch that it  doesn’t become a regular excuse!  (see point #11)

4. We take some projects outside.  Painting when little was definitely an outside task.  This often involved the hose in cleaning up.  Now, when the children are more controlled with their brushes I allow painting inside – though this is usually watercolour, acrylics etc not so much big pots of poster paint.  If they are using small brushes I find they are generally more controlled in their arm movements – this means they are ready to come indoors.  Clay has been another outdoor activity though I have generally allowed play dough to be indoors.  Paper making – outdoors!   Glitter – I have found no solution for coping with glitter – other than banning it!    I have made sure that there is a water supply wherever they are working as well as somewhere safe from wind and water where they can put their finished products.

5. Have the right clothes!  The children have got used to having to change if they want to do a messy activity.  This teaches respect for clothing, respect for mummy’s time in the laundry.  This was really bought home when we spent time with a “real” artist who usually turned her blouse/shirts inside out as extra protection when she was painting.

6. Clean up time everyday.  5.00pm has always been the tools down, change gear time in our family – regardless of what we were working on.  Come 5.00pm we put everything away and get ready for family time around dinner.  This means that creative projects and the work areas get clean up, things get put away and the room is left tidy ready for tomorrow.  Sometimes I allow a project to be kept out but everything has to be tidy around it.  If we, by any chance don’t get back to it tomorrow it won’t create extra “mess” by just being there.

7. One creative project out at a time.  They may have an unfinished project box which means they have begun more than one creative project without completing the last but as far as their workspace goes on this particular day – only one project out at a time.  Though this doesn’t always appear to be happening when you have 4 children working on 1 project each – but it could be worse!

8. An Art Cupboard – It doesn’t have to be a whole cupboard just a space where art materials are stored, in an organised fashion so the kids can get supplies, or see what is there and ask for it (depending on the ages), and most importantly know where things belong so they can put them back.  The times that we have been the least creative have been when our supplies are in a mess – Even I don’t want to open the cupboard even to find the glue!

9. It has also helped to have a place for unfinished creative projects.  We have done the Family Box of Unfinished projects but at the moment they have a small box each.  Currently we have rocks for polishing, Fimo models, soldering wire projects, papier mache, wooden painted kits, paper making all happening between the four children.

10. A luxury I know, but it has helped me to have a table available to the kids for their creative pursuits – we call it our art table.  It is covered in black gardening plastic and is ready for whatever they want to do.  If you don’t have this kind of space available at your place I’d encourage you to make sure you have big messy mats, or plastic table clothes to cover the table you do want them to use.

11. Keep my life in balance.   I have found that I need to find balance in my day and this becomes apparent the most when I keep saying to my children – not now, later!  Why do I say this… because I haven’t the time to do any of the above points – no time to train them, to help them, to clean up with them.  There is the right time for mess and there is the time to find something else to do.  I believe that when I show that I have time for mess the children respond well to the times when I do not.  I have found that when I start to be characterised by saying “Not now, later” it is when I have things out of balance and I am not focusing enough on my job as parent.

12. I must be honest – it has got easier as the children have got older.  This, in a way, reflects the season of life we find ourselves in.  Are we prepared to commit ourselves to the toddler, the preschooler or are we chaffing at the bit waiting for them to be middle primary so they can help with the set up and cleaning up of these projects.

13.This is the really biggest tip of all – Get over it!  I had to face the fact that I believed in my kids being creative, that I believed in hands on activities, that I believed it was up to me to provide these experiences for my kids.  Not to say that those experiences in themselves were the first and foremost for our day – the consideration of others in itself comes before ones personal desire to be creative! But… the thought is there – am I being true to what I believe by limiting the kids’ creative bents!

So though it never came to letting him just create mess for the sake of creating mess – that isn’t teaching him the character skills of orderliness, respect, consideration etc – I did come to a place where we could have creativity happening, and my home could still maintain some semblance of order!

Have you had to work at getting over a mess phobia?  What tips would you give?


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