What is Messy Art? (Why do teachers hate mess)

by Suzanne Axelsson

Messy art can be about lots of tiny paper bits, or clay, or any materials that require work to clean up afterwards – spilled water, stains etc. How we view the clean up process is going to impact what kind of freedoms we offer children. How children are included in these processes is also going to impact how the children engage in the materials.

I once had a child that, when in the care of the closing teacher, spent time alone in a room with the sensory table filled with out of date dried lentils. He thoroughly enjoyed himself by spreading the lentils everywhere. I have images in my head of him tossing them like fairy dust, dancing and enjoying it.
The next day I came to the room and it was covered in a thin layer of lentils… from the floor to the highest shelf. It was impressive. And crunchy underfoot.

I breathed. It was moments away from our morning gathering where we would eat fruit and talk about our day. Calmly I found out from the teacher what had happened, and their obvious dislike of the “messy sensory table” and their decision to “teach me a lesson”  by leaving the mess rather than tidying it up, or letting me know. I then went to the child in question. I simply said “it looks like you had a lot of fun yesterday, but today I need you to come and help me tidy up your fun so we can all meet”. We cleaned up together, his peers and friends came to help too. I asked if he had enjoyed the process, which he shook his head to – which surprised me, because the effectiveness of the whole-room lentil-covering indicated otherwise, so I wondered how the other teacher had reacted and whether this had made the child feel ashamed of what must have been experienced as joy..

I was not the slightest bit angry or frustrated with the child. This child was playing and learning. The child also learned, by being involved in tidying-up as an act of responsibility rather than as a punishment, to make smaller messes in the future… or as I suggested, make big ones with natural materials outside that don’t need cleaning up – like tossing autumn leaves around.

This is why it is so important to include the children. They have the right to make a mess, but they also have responsibilities – responsibilities should always be in tune with the child’s capacity and maturity.

Here are a few messy art ideas that are both small and large that can help you reflect on the possibilities. I have worked at settings where I was not allowed to make messes on the floor, even in the atelier, and have found ways to overcome that with shower curtains or sheets etc on the floor so that children did not feel limited by my anxiety over getting into trouble with mess.

Mess with coloured water. (I used the inside of dried pens to colour the water) Using a tray to minimise the spread of the mess and wetness.

Allowing the mess also allows for new discoveries… for example,  paint doesn’t just make marks when you paint on, but also when you scrape off.

Some messy activities, like flicking paint on a toothbrush, can be enjoyed by placing the paper inside a cardboard box on it’s side to allow flicking in multiple directions while minimising just how much of the classroom becomes speckled.

Sometimes together, sometimes alone. Finding multiple ways to fully explore and enjoy. If I don’t have a sink close by, then I will often have a large bowl/bucket/box of soapy water and towels for the children to clean up in instead of leaving paint trails between the studio and the sinks.

“Clean” messy art… using a metal ball and magnet to enable a messy kind of art that doesn’t result in being messy. Prints were made to capture the work. This works well with children who are mess averse. I am always looking for ways to create inclusive environments for all children – both those children who need lots of sensory input and where getting messy meets that need, and children who are easily overwhelmed and messiness can create anxiety.

Full body painting has been a consistent favourite over the years… and I have done this in multiple ways both inside and outside. I always have dialogues with the children’s parents about clothes, mess, expectations and cleaning up. I once worked with a fair haired child that smeared blue paint into his hair and stained it green for several washes – much to his parents’ horror and amusement. Just as I have picked up my own children after a day in the forest stained with blueberry juice all over their face because they had “made” make-up. That moment of horror is soon overcome by amusement (and the awareness that everyone on the underground train would be staring at my purple faced twins grinning from ear to ear).

Simply put. We have to get comfortable with the mess. It is going to happen. How big depends on your attitude. It’s not a simple “more mess more fun” ratio… It is about the freedom to explore the materials, and sometimes that can make a mess, but not always  – and one child’s freedom can limit another child – so finding balance in the freedom and the mess is what we need to be reflecting on.

This post is part of the project Grammar of Drawing by Suzanne Axelsson, Nona Orbach and Roberta Pucci.

It has been translated in four languages:

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