I’ve never been one to keep neat when being creative. As a child, I came home from school with paint all over myself — my mom probably lost track of how many outfits I ruined. I’ve been lovingly called “messy Betsy” on more than one occasion — worrying about keeping clean would just hamper my creative process.
Now, as a parent, I’m revisiting the relationship between messiness and creativity. My older son cares a lot about “keeping clean.” So I will frequently remind him, “it’s ok to be messy, we can clean up when we’re done.” It’s not that I’m unappreciative of his desire for cleanliness, but that sometimes focusing on keeping things neat diverts your attention from the creative process.
This came to the forefront of my mind when I invited Toby to help me paint some cabinets I’d acquired. We were prepared to be messy — painting clothes, drop cloth, paper towel, you name it. As we painted, Toby enjoyed himself to no end. But I had to catch myself a number of times as I felt the urge to keep things neat. “Don’t let the paint drip… Stop getting so much paint on your paintbrush…. don’t get paint on me… you have paint in your hair…” My attention was on managing the mess instead of having fun with the creative process of painting.
I had to chuckle at myself, because Toby was a picture of messy creativity. He was thrilled to be helping mom with an important project, excited to use big paintbrushes, and just as messy as I was in childhood. I’m grateful I was allowed to be messy — and I want to afford him that same opportunity.
So, with that in mind, here are several tips to help you release your inner child… or to encourage you in as you parent a little mess maker.
1. Creativity is messy sometimes.
As I just mentioned, we sometimes try to split our attention between creativity and keeping clean. But, if you’re worried about keeping from making a mess, part of your attention will be distracted from being creative. To do your best work, to tap the depths of your creative resources, you need to get past that need for being neat, and accept that sometimes… creativity is messy.
Extending this to kids – let them make a mess! Before painting, have them put on clothes you don’t care about. Take the project outside so that you don’t have to stress out about cleaning up afterwards. Use materials that won’t leave a permanent mark behind. Don’t interrupt your child’s creative process just to remind them to “be neat.”
2. “Coloring outside the lines” isn’t a bad thing.
Maybe it’s from our schooling, or maybe it’s from a desire for outside approval, but we frequently try to stay in the box when it comes to self-expression. Coloring books galore send subliminal messages that you need to use a certain color, and stay within the lines provided. You have to get past those restrictions, the rules. Free your creative mind from the approved “lines.”
If your kid doesn’t want to color “the right way” …what’s the big deal? My toddler doesn’t like to color in coloring books. He’ll cover the pages with elaborate swirls and patches of color, or put splashes of color over the faces on a coloring sheet. But that’s the extent of our coloring within the lines. There doesn’t have to be a “right” way to color, it’s the process and the self-expression that we really want to encourage.
3. Making messes teaches responsibility.
On a related note — it’s only by making messes that we learn to clean up after ourselves. If we keep things ship shape for our children, there’s no opportunity for them to learn what happens if things get a little messy, and how good it can feel to clean up after ourselves. By teaching that responsibility goes hand in hand with creativity, we can help our kids to get beyond the mentality that cleaning up after ourselves is an inconvenience. Just like encouraging your kids to help clean house is a skill that will benefit them later in life, picking up after oneself is an essential life skill. By letting your kid make a mess, you can teach and educate during the clean up phase too.
More Resources on Being Messy
I’ve collected a few posts about being messy, or doing messy activities, that you may find enlightening. Links will open in a new window for your convenience.
- Why I Let My Kids Make Big Giant Messes
- A Family That Plays Together, Cleans Together
- 10 Reasons My House Is Messy (and I Don’t Mind)
- Obsessive Parenting – Am I Guilty?
- What is Sensory Play, and What Are the Benefits?
- How to Foster Creativity and Problem-Solving
- The ABC’s of Learning Through Play (M is for Messy Play)
And, here are several messy art projects that may prove helpful for you as you explore the relationship of messiness and creativity with your kids. These links will open in a new window too.
Do you have any tips or ideas for cultivating messiness (as it lends itself to creativity or other beneficial processes)? I’d love to hear them.