Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Let’s make a mess…. Mess is good.

His little boy was flailing around on the floor, arms and legs moving frantically, when a curious Atul asked his son, ‘Pablo, what’re you doing?’  ‘Dada, I’m shwimming,’ he said, his eyes happier than chocolate.
His clothes, as you’d expect, were a mess.  His creased t-shirt hanging out of his waistband, his white pants, a pleasing shade of brown.  
Atul wasn’t sure if he should grumble or laugh.
He grinned, and good for him!

Luckily that day, ‘shwimming in an imaginary sea’ won over a possibly stern ‘Get up right now… look at your clothes!’
But making a mess isn’t so bad, or is it?

Making a mess is associated with creativity, and play. Both of which require some upside down, some rearranging our brain cells like Lego bits, the discovery of new ideas – ‘Look mum, I’m a walrus’, as he holds breadsticks  under his nose at a ‘proper’ sit-down dinner. But most importantly it involves imagination and self-expression.

Imagine if Picasso’s mum said, ‘Don’t make a mess. Get your pieces of coal out of here’.  

Aah, kids will make a mess.  Rewind, and you’ll remember making mud cakes (or playdough ones )and feeding them to your dolls, or happily rolling in freshly-washed  clothes just taken off the line,  or running up a mudstorm on the playground.

Yes, I know, not too many playgrounds in the city, but we got floors. Grin grin… and our kids are using their imagination. And as Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”  Yes, the same guy who developed the special and general theories of relativity, and won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921. Not too bad huh?

Now, some parents insist, ‘Kids shouldn’t waste their time making a mess. They should either be studying or playing some good educational games.’
 True they have homework and classes… and unfortunately, more classes. But what will really carry them through this world that’s changing so quickly, help them find their own solutions, and help them shine, will be their own Imagination.  

Mess – I’m not recommending pudding on the carpet, and do trust you to know the difference - brings new self-knowledge (‘Aah! I can create something!’), self-confidence, relieves emotional distress (Oh yes! If you watched an angry child create beautiful paper mache birds from newspaper pulp, you’d agree), and helps discover the creativity waiting within.

In their book , A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder - How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and on-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place, Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman  talk about , the bias towards neatness programmed into most of us. Noting that "organizations can be messy in highly useful ways," they urge companies to be more flexible and relinquish control over some processes. See? They’re advising it in the boardrooms.

Yes, I understand. Our parents and teachers taught us to be neat, and disciplined. And it got us brownie points. (I’m sure we can hear our mothers’ voices saying, ‘Put that shirt away right now.’)  But while neatness and order have their place, we need to find more space for the ‘mess’ that lets us be Us. And therefore, let our kids be who they really are.

Allowing some mess allow kids to relax and be themselves. To let their imagination go for a walk in the open sky… to escape day-to-day realities and into places that are wonderful and magic.
So let her pull out the bed-sheets and pretend they are parachutes, or swings. Let her use the cardboard box your computer came in to take off to another galaxy, or be a caveman. Let her turn over the chair to make it a horse or chariot. Let her use the spoons to make music (please do this on a day when you won’t possibly fling them out at 300 kmph). Let her tear up newspaper and imagine they’re clouds.
They don’t need fancy play stations or expensive toys. (Well, till they’re told that they’re ‘cool’ if they do).

Oh yes, I haven’t forgotten that mess involves cleaning. And yes, mommy/ daddy dearest, it can be backbreaking… but if you give them a corner, and teach them to clean up after themselves  - which by the way teaches them self-reliance and discipline, it gets easier.

And in case you’re worried he’ll catch an infection, or fall ill, as ironic as it sounds,  the more he is exposed to a messy environment the stronger he’ll become. Of course, we’re not saying throw him into an oil slick sea at Juhu. But let him roll on the floor… let him know what mud tastes like.
Play transports them to a fabulous world, where anything is possible. And if it involves a mess, why deny them that? They will ultimately grow up and face the larger realities… but for now. Let them roll. 

At chocolaterie I know, the paper napkin has a line: ‘It’s better to have enjoyed and made a mess, than to have not enjoyed at all’.  I couldn’t agree more.

Read what Dr Michel Borba has to say on the benefits of play.


  1. What a blessing mess can be! I agree...if only we grew up not being coaxed to colour within the lines, write within the framework, I think that would have freed us from so many restrictions and limitations we put on ourselves, in so many areas of our lives, forget creative expressions.
    Joan, you have done it again! You never fail to amaze me with your brilliance and your perspective. I love this site and will forward the link to all my friends with kids. The article link you attached is brilliant...Sadly, as the article mentions, play time has become almost extinct. With so much competitive pressure on studies and then we add so many additional classes to our kids lives - sport, music, art, dance, speech, whatever, our kids have no spare time to just unwind.I guess each parent thinks it is important to give your child every edge they can think of - and often we lose the very essence of childhood - a time for innocence, a time for experimenting and free play! .
    Hey, just a suggestion for your next article - can you do an article on how to talk to teens....and get them to listen....HAHAHA
    Best regards,

  2. Francie!! Thank you!! :)
    Speaking of writing outside of margins, Tridha (tridha.com), an alternative learning school, encourages kids by giving them large blank sheets of paper to write on. The idea being, no margins, and 'thinking wide'.
    Yes, I will post something on talking to teens as soon as I can.