Why do teachers hate mess?

The Joy of messy Art

By Suzanne Axelsson

Over the years I have seen the benefits of getting messy while exploring with art materials (or really anything). Equally I have seen great numbers of mess averse educators, and owners of schools and preschools that result in limiting children’s ability to play with art materials.

Giving permission to young children (or children of all ages) to fully explore and play means reconciling with mess. The mess is often sensory rich, knowledge rich, socially rich, emotionally rich and eliminating it from the early years and schools is counter productive.

Yes, it does require more work to clean up, but I have frequently found that children also enjoy the cleaning up process, even if it does often make the clean up process take longer – so much learning occurs there. As Roberta has mentioned before, mark making is not just the adding of materials, it is also the removal… and wiping paint off a table or a floor opens up new opportunities to be creative and discover. Cleaning brushes and pots equally so… I have yet to experience a child who does not start playing with filling a paint stained pot and start to marvel at the transformations, and sometimes starts “cooking” with the brushes, water and pots, or making magic potions. Long shared sinks are the absolute best for this.

When I have planned for a full sensory experience I plan ahead – how will the children clean themselves – is the sink close by, do I have access to a shower, or should I fill a BIG tub/box of water so the children can clean themselves close by? There are big plastic boxes that work great as makeshift children cleaners, and they have become an exciting part of the whole process. I have towels and everything close by – the children’s clothes are in neat piles ready to put on again.

Everything is set up to minimise problematic transitions, which I know many children can struggle with. And yes, it can be hard work. Yes, I get quite sweaty as it’s intense. But the rewards far outweigh all of this.

I have been lucky, I have had a shower in the atelier or close by in several settings I have worked at which has meant cleaning children easy.

At the end of every year, the last session in the atelier is the children’s choice. We plan a few weeks ahead what it is they want to do as a group so that I can ensure that we have all the materials we need. Every single year that I have done this – and it is many years – the children have chosen a messy, paint with the whole body experience. Often that last one we play, paint, explore until the paper has disintegrated. Often I recycle, from a sustainability point of view, but this last one they learn about saturation, about the impacts of their moving bodies on wet paper etc.

But the joy.

Not only the joy, the dialogues that start as they observe the different qualities of wetness, and how the colours mix, and how they interact with each other, and how it leaves marks on themselves. 

There is so much space for the children to learn about consent. Am I allowed to touch someone else and leave traces on them? Do I have the right to say no to someone else, and do I have the strength to say that when I discover I do?

Not all messy art is collective.

It can be small, as children take their brushes and start to paint themselves instead of the paper, and feel the bristles and the coolness of the paint against their skin. Forgetting their paper and what they “were supposed to be doing” and focussing on the delicious sensations of hands and arms transforming.

Although not all children like to get messy. As a mother I have two children who loved to fully experience paint, food or whatever they could make a mess with, and one child who was mess adverse and it became a traumatic experience that would end up in tears and desperation to be clean again. Planning for mess that can include all children is also important so that there is freedom for all the children to artistically explore. And that can simply be provided for. Either using utensils when others are using hands, or using gloves or laying a piece of plastic bag over the top of paint for them to spread it around. Taking the time to understand how the activity will be experienced by all the children can make it less emotionally messy.

Some places I have worked at have had strict rules about getting floors and walls and furnishings messy and I had to be creative in my thinking about how can I make this kind of freedom with art materials be available to the children without causing problems for myself.

I have spread out old sheets, or shower curtains etc on floors to protect them from spills so that I did not have to hover over the children to ensure they painted “sensibly”. Making sure children had access to cleaning facilities was important. Sometimes designs are not perfect and the sinks have been placed in another room from where we paint, and there is that risk of letting a child go themselves to clean up, possibly leaving a trail on the way – or leaving the group to fend for themselves for a few minutes… unless I am dictating when everyone can leave, and that just doesn’t sit well with me.
I find having a bucket of water and a towel with me in the water free art room can be of service to get the worst off, and then allow the child to wash off the rest.

I am also choosing art materials that will easily wash out, or wipe off too – so that the children can maximise the experience. So my adult choices within my context are crucial – they can make the difference between the children being able to have greater or lesser freedom in their art explorations.

Parents are another barrier sometimes, and having dialogues about the benefits of messy art and exploration I have found is very useful, as well as  letting them know which days we are playing with art materials and that they should send their children in clothes that are OK to get messy. I have even put clothes into the school washing machine when I know that families struggle with having enough clothes or access to laundry facilities. 

My own children had special paint clothes when they were preschoolers so that they could freely explore when doing art without any anxiety for getting their clothes messy (the idea was they could wipe their paint covered hands on their clothes) and so that aprons etc did not get in the way of their creativity – some of these plastic aprons can limit movement, or sound or smell strange which can be off-putting for some children. Children with anxiety for mess, sometimes because they are afraid of what their parents will say, and some because they do not like being messy themselves all need to be met with genuine respect so that they can be helped through the anxiety so they can experience creative joy. Dialogues with parents, protective layers, or extra clothes to change into can all be of help.

In the mess there is maths, there is writing, there is joy, there are social interactions, knowledge-building. It is so much more than just a mess. There is also that freedom that we have been referring to in our writings about scribbles. This messy freedom is not always accessible in every child’s home, so providing for it in preschools, kindergartens and schools is technically a necessity. The next post will take a closer look at what messy art is.

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: