Wednesday, June 22, 2011

5 tips to help parents embrace messy play at preschool

Play can be a messy business.

Children throw themselves wholeheartedly into the business of exploring the world around them, with little concern for grass stains on their pants or paint in their hair.

That's how it should be.

It is us parents who can get hung up on muddy clothing or messy children at the end of a busy day of play at preschool, not the kids. 

When parents voice concerns over the appropriateness of messy play teachers can feel under pressure to send home clean and tidy children at the cost of limiting playful and sensory learning and discovery.

What do you do to help parents embrace messy play?

When I write about playing in the mud or the dirt I receive emails from teachers who are trying to balance a desire to provide kids with these learning experiences with parental concerns. 

1.  Let Parents Know What They are Signing Up For
When parents first come to visit we explain that children learn through play - and play can be messy, dirty, wet, muddy and sandy.  Children will be walking in the bush, playing outside, digging in dirt, painting and coming home looking like they have done all of those things.

Letting parents know at the outset what to expect from a day at preschool gives them the opportunity to decide whether or not this particular preschool experience is the one for them. 

"Dealing with Baby-Gap Syndrome" from the Ooey Goey Lady has some helpful advice in this department.

2.  Help Parents to Be Prepared

Your parent handbook is a great place to give parents tips and strategies for equipping their child for a day of play, for example:
  • Dress children in old clothes or clothes you won't mind getting dirty or covered in paint.  
  • Send children with a couple of complete clothing changes.
  • Dress children appropriately for the weather conditions.  Rainy days mean raincoats and gumboots.

3.  Be Prepared Yourself

Spare clothes can be forgotten or rain coats left at home on a rainy day.  We can support parents by having supplies at hand at preschool.  Here is what we do:
  • A cupboard on our veranda - accessible to the children - holds spare clothing in drawers labelled with pictures.  Families kindly donate the clothing their children have outgrown.    
  • Spare raincoats hanging on a clothing rack that is easily wheeled onto the veranda on wet days.
  • A couple of milk crates full of gumboots.  
  • Towels, towels and more towels.

4.  Help Children Help Themselves

Changing children into spare clothes throughout the day can be time consuming but on the flip side it is an  opportunity to foster independence and autonomy. 

Encouraging each child to try to take their own clothes off / find their spare clothes in their bags / put new clothes on is hard yakka at first but boy, does it pay off.   

It is a beautiful thing indeed to watch a child who once asserted that he couldn't possibly put on his own socks walk in from a hard morning digging in the wet sand to change his own wet jeans and socks, put it all back in his locker and then go about his business.

5.  Talk, talk, talk.

Talk up the value of play to parents - we need to be able to tell parents why messy play is important and what skills are being developed as their children are engaged in those experiences.

Families often don't see how little Johnny worked for ages to build dams in the digging patch.  They miss the problem solving, creativity and imagination.  They might even think that little Johnny got muddy because the teachers weren't paying attention to what little Johnny was doing.

Being able to show families the process of learning through messy play is a powerful thing.  Articles in your newsletter, photograph displays, daily slide shows on a digital photo frame or laptop, learning stories and parent information sessions can go a long way in helping parents understand that messy clothes are a by-product of valuable play.

Here are some resources that can help you do just that::

::: Let Your Kids Get Dirty! @ Simple Mom
::: A Dirty Kid is a Happy Kid @ Primal Parent
::: Play in the Dirt for a Clean Bill of Health @ News for Parents
::: Nature Based Playgrounds @ Kidsafe WA
::: Sometimes You Just Gotta Make Mud pies @ Randy White
::: Mud pies and Daisy Chains: Connecting Young Children and Nature by Sue Elliot and Julie Davis

The marks on children's clothes, the pockets filled with sand, the paint in the hair - these are the indicators of architects, artists, and scientists in training.  If we worry too much about wet or dirty clothing we can place a real damper on the spirit of learning and self-discovery.

How do you help families to embrace the messiness of play?


  1. I think hands-on, messy activities are the best ones for kids. They can teach some pretty valuable lessons and they're fun. I personally really like preschools that provide those kinds of activities. I'm looking for a preschool in my area right now. Hopefully I can find something good for my kids!

  2. I think it is a good idea to have parents send their kids with an extra change of clothes. Accidents happen all the time with younger age groups all the time. It is a good idea to be prepared where this is concerned. Kids can get very messy.