Hi there. This is my daughter’s first year in preschool. As we have been heading into the spring, I’m starting to get really frustrated with her teachers because her clothes are coming home filthy every day! What could they possibly be doing that she gets so muddy?! What do I say to them? Can I make it stop?
First, I want to assure you that your concern about your child getting messy is one that many parents have. As an educator, I have heard this sentiment echoed many times over. I also want to encourage you to start an open dialogue with your child’s educators! Let them know your concerns. It will give them an idea about your values and hopefully they will share some insight into the school philosophy. Early educators are always eager to learn more about family life and work with parents to best support children.
All that being said, let me help explain what might be happening at your daughter’s very messy school! One exercise that helped me understand this topic happened many years ago in a child development course. A professor had the whole class close their eyes and think back to our happiest memories of childhood. Almost every adult in that classroom reminisced about unstructured time outdoors where they don’t remember any adults being near them. We thought about our children now and our classrooms. Unfortunately, due to the changing times, that is not a luxury most of our children are often afforded. We need to have eyes and ears on children a lot more today than adults did when we were growing up. The benefit of unstructured time for development is unparalleled. Children’s self-esteem, problem solving skills, emotional regulation, social skills and imagination grow infinitely when they are given time to explore materials on their own or with their peers with limited to know adult intervention. Without adults stepping in to solve social conflict (believe me teachers are nearby in case situations get out of control), children can come up with solutions on their own and learn to navigate social situations. While getting messy, children can explore materials in a hands-on way. They can imagine with materials that are open-ended (meaning they don’t have one prescribed use). Their exploration often includes socio-dramatic play as they make mud pies, pretend to buy and sell their creations, act pro-socially making things for their peers and make creations that we couldn’t even dream of. They can learn science concepts about states of matter, living and non-living things, changes in seasons, and the world around them. They can test predictions about changing materials in real time and begin to understand the scientific process. Children can take ownership of their play leading to higher self-esteem and confidence levels.
You might wonder why unstructured time needs to include mud at all. It doesn’t always have to! However, one important thing to note is that there is actually research supporting the benefits of messy play for children. There have been many studies conducted to test the effect of mud play on development. There are just a few listed below this post. Not only have studies been conducted about children’s learning through this play, but health benefits have been discovered as well! In today’s very sanitized and sterilized world, children aren’t exposed to very much bacteria. Science has shown, “that dirt contains microscopic bacteria called Mycobacterium Vaccae which stimulates the immune system and increases the levels of serotonin in our brains, an endorphin that soothes, calms, and helps us to relax” (Rupiper, 2016). Boosting a child’s immune system in this way not only wards off illness, it also reduces risk of depression, anxiety and allergies!
I encourage you to do more reading through some of the links below. Have a talk with your child’s teachers. If you are still not comfortable with your child’s clothes dirty, maybe try sending a set of old clothes, like sweatpants and a t-shirt, for your child to change into when they will be playing in messy materials. Your child’s teachers won’t judge you or your child if you wash that one outfit and send it back every day! Know that whatever comes of this particular situation, you should develop an open line of communication with your child’s teachers as all of you are working for what’s best for her!
Harper, A. P. D. (2010). Helping Children to Cope with Change, Stress and Anxiety. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Retrieved from https://gold.worcester.edu:3235/lib/worcesteruniv-ebooks/detail.action?docID=581452
Salehizadeh, Z., Mehrafsha, J., & Ostovar, S. (2014). Comparative analysis of clay and dough play on preschoolers' creativity in fasa. Advances in Environmental Biology, , 318.