It’s a question I pose during my workshops on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) for early childhood educators. I love it because you get an immediate visual reaction from everyone. Some of them pump their fists and say “I love it!” Others shift a little uncomfortably in their chair and some fold their arms almost as if they are protecting themselves from the idea.
It isn’t as if any of these educators expect children to not make a mess. There are just a lot of factors at play. Some may not have enough help in the classroom to make facilitating messy play easy, administrators may hold them to high standards of classroom organization or they may have families who don’t want (or can’t afford) for their children’s clothes to get messy.
When we probe a little further, they start to explain. “I don’t mind mess as long as it is FOR something.” or “When they are learning and it gets messy that is fine.” What they usually land on is the term “Purposeful Mess” and most agree that mess with a purpose is a key part of early learning.
This is important to think about because learning is messy. Young children need to get in there and try things out and experiment and see what happens. Mess takes many forms. It may be dirt and mud and sand but it can also mean art projects that aren’t recognizable or discussions that veer from the lesson plan.
“Purposeful Mess” doesn’t mean letting them abuse materials or abandon responsibility for cleaning up after themselves. It also doesn’t mean letting them totally run the show. What it does mean is being willing to let them get in there with both hands and try things out for themselves and being ok with things going “off script” sometimes. “Purposeful Mess” is often where some really amazing learning happens.