On Embracing Messy Play

tips to embrace messy play outside

Getting kids outside is a challenge! We live in a dynamic, fast-paced world driven by technology, and our children’s lives are more scheduled than ever. Much of this comes out of the necessity to accommodate demanding work schedules. The consequence is a significant decline in the amount children play, specifically outside.

Exposing children to nature-based play experiences is essential to providing a balanced childhood. It gives children an outlet and a space that isn’t driven by preconceived ideas. There are no solutions, no goals, no levels, only simple objects, and space. The space I refer to is both physical and mental. You don’t need a lot of physical space to provide for quality mental space.

The most common concern I hear about nature-based play is that it is dirty and messy. The beautiful thing about outdoor play is that you can clean it up with very little effort; in most cases, water is all you need.

How To Keep The Mess Outside

Here’s my action plan for quickly cleaning up five little people every day:

How To Set Up A Clean Up Bin Outdoors For Messy Play

Step One: Gather a couple of towels – one for the ground and one for the body.

Step Two: Set up a clean up medium size bin/bucket. My favourite bin in terms of durability, longevity, and versatility is a Rubbermaid Roughneck 10 gal bin. This bin will be the key to keeping the unwanted elements of outdoor play outside.

Step Three: Fill about halfway with warm water instead of using hose water.  When I fill my bin, I tend to fill it on the slightly hot side as it will be sitting for some time before I use it. If you have the ability to fill right before you need it, you only need to use warm water.

This strategy is particularly important for kids who are not enthusiastic about spending time outside.

Washing off with cold water does not leave a positive impression.

The last thing you want children to remember about their outdoor play is that they had to clean up in cold water; they will be less enthusiastic about engaging the next time around. Over time this will change, but at the beginning set yourself and them up for success.

Step Four: Wash! There are numerous strategies you can employ here. Get in the bin and wash or use a cup and stand beside it. I have also found that a watering can is quite effective for getting the dirt off legs.

Step Five: Once you’ve washed the dirt off, stand on a towel beside the door and dry off.

Final step: Use the remaining water to clean gear. There is nothing worse than going to put on a pair of shoes that are filled with sand or covered with mud. This step will also minimize the excessive dirt from entering your home.

Having a clean up bin serves a variety of purposes. It keeps the mess out of your house and sets a standard for reference. For those moments when someone says “My hands are dirty” or “I’m getting dirty” you can reassure them that they will be cleaned up at the end so they can enjoy their time.  I do not recommend getting in the habit of cleaning mid-session or regularly as it sets a difficult standard and distracts children from engaging in meaningful play experiences.

Our Attitude Towards Outdoor, Messy Play

A note about our role in shaping their willingness to engage in meaningful and messy play:

As adults, our attitude towards their play experiences will help develop their comfort levels with it. If you have a particular attachment to certain clothing pieces, set your children up with some outdoor play clothes that you will not get upset if they get dirty. When children know that the clothing and shoes they are wearing are meant to be played in and get dirty, they will be more willing to engage in trying. This too is part of teaching children how to play outside.

Read, a naturopathic doctor's perspective on why getting a little dirty is good for the immune system.

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