Creativity is messy, but oh so important for the exploration of self.
A little about me
As I child, I was always making. My mom taught me to sew when I was six, on an old Singer that had a hand crank. I would sew pillows and bags and, eventually, my Halloween costumes. I also loved office supplies with a passion that was unusual for a small child. One of my strongest memories is when my mom would take me to work with her. Those days of exploring the supply closet and playing with the copy machine were some of my very best!
I was never the kid who got messy, though. I didn’t love clay. It was brown and made my hands dirty. Or woodshop, with the sawdust flying everywhere. I wasn’t fastidious (I am by no means a neat freak), but I was more comfortable sticking with small and intricate things, like coloring books, origami, and sewing.
(My oldest, exploring her creativity.)
When I had children of my own
Fast-forward a few decades to being married with a two-year old girl who was just starting to paint and draw. I actually don’t remember much about those toddler years, other than showing her materials and letting her go. When she turned three I had another baby, so by then she had a pretty good handle on choosing her own supplies and creating whatever and whenever she felt like it.
(My oldest exploring her creativity, on her baby sister.)
Soon, a pattern started to emerge with my first-born. I should have seen the signs when she was a crawling infant and would grab our mail and magazines off the coffee table and rip them to shreds. This girl LOVED MESS!! She was very tactile. She loved to get into it, whether it was ripping, shredding, smashing or breaking. She loved to cover her body in paint, marker, water, playdough, mud…whatever. (And other people’s bodies, too, I might add.)
For a while I got really annoyed. It was so foreign to me I just didn’t get it. Everything she touched, she crumpled, ripped or just plain broke. On purpose! One night, when she was about three and being a little too quiet up in her bed, she came downstairs and declared, “I’m all finished.” Um, finished with what? The child had ripped every page out of every book in her room!!! Not out of anger, but just because it felt so good. This is a true story.
I learned later on that she was discovering who she was, and where she fit in the world. It was creativity in its most basic form: exploring her senses.
(My oldest with her sister, always and forever drawn to messing about.)
Eventually, I came to terms with this need in her to destroy and make messes. To this day (as a teenager) she will still peel every label off of everything and anything, she can’t help but shred her straw or break the tongs off her plastic fork, she doodles on every piece of paper that is in front of her, and she still LOVES to cover her hands in paint. Luckily, she now has some self-control and is not ripping up books anymore (although I bet she still wants to) or sticking playdough on her sister’s face (I’m pretty sure she still wants to do that).
Teaching art to other children
When I started teaching art classes last year, it didn’t take me long to realize that these little 4-yr olds were much more interested in the process of making art than the end result. And if there was even the slightest opportunity to get their hands dirty, they would go for it.
There is always one child who doesn’t go for it (much like me when I was little), but she or he will take equal pleasure in seeing the others get messy. And as their teacher, I encourage exploration even for the most finicky.
I know that most moms who are doing art at home with their kids do not love the idea of there being a big mess. Trust me, I used to be in your camp all the way. But I am here to say to you right now — try really hard to let go, and to allow for some mess-making.
Making creative messes is fun! It’s exhilarating, it’s tactile, it’s spontaneous and it’s creating a happy memory.
“It is important to make the distinction between getting messy and messing about. It seems that art materials and art experiences quickly become categorized as messy. The focus can all too easily become centered on keeping the area spotless or making certain that the child remains clean. However, this is not only an unreasonable expectation but also a deterrent for the child’s authentic exploration of the creative process…. Children are innately curious and want to understand their place in the world. It is only through their senses that they can make this happen.”
The mess created during art making is NOT everywhere. I teach art in my living room and the mess is almost always contained to the table. There may be some paint on the floor and on the stools, but I use water-based paints and they come off with a wet sponge. This “mess” that I talk about is not haphazard mess making. It’s not about being naughty. It’s about letting the art evolve and letting your child experience the mess if that’s where their creativity takes them.
It’s messing about.
Here are some art experiences that encourage messing about. I have tried almost all of them either with my art class, or my own kids. Think of these experiences as being as important in childhood as learning to read! In fact, one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite educators goes like this:
“Creativity is now as important in education as literacy.” – Sir Ken Robinson
10 Art Experiences That Encourage Messing About
- Making flubber (or slime, oobleck, whatever you want to call it). I have a tried-and-true recipe for Flubber here. But you can also find TONS of recipes on my friend’s blog Fun at Home with Kids. The flubber is actually not messy to play with. It’s messy and gooey while making it, but then it becomes less messy and contained (as long as you keep it on the table and not on the rug!).
- Using spray bottles We’ve used them so many times but I have never written a post about them yet. But the kids LOVE, and I mean loovvvve, spraying anything. I usually fill them with just water or a mix of water and color (either liquid watercolor or food coloring). You can also read this post from Adventure in a Box on spray bottle art with kids.
- Using rollers We use rollers a LOT. We worked with them when doing some printmaking, and at other times I have put them out along with paintbrushes just as another painting tool. The paintings sometimes become brown when using rollers because all the paint mixes together fairly easily, so I suggest using one color palette (like blue/green or red/pink/orange) when using rollers. My friend Meri Cherry wrote a fabulous post about incorporating both rollers and spray bottles. And here is another post from The Artful Parent on using rollers and other tools. Kids love rolling!!
- Making potions Ok, this really is messy, but in the best way. It is the number one favorite thing my kids have ever done. I wrote about it here. They did it with their cousins, and every time their cousins come over they ask to make potions again. It’s a must! And would be a great birthday party idea. They are using all of their senses, it’s a beautiful thing.
- Shaving cream We’ve used shaving cream a ton in the bath, especially when they were little. Add a little food coloring and you’ll never have a reluctant bather again! In art class, we have used it to marbleize. I never wrote about it on my blog, but you can find this post written by The Artful Parent on marbleizing with shaving cream. And Growing a Jeweled Rose has 20 more ways to play with shaving cream. The best part about sharing cream is that in the end, the kids will smell good.
- Scrape Painting This is something we come back to again and again, it never seems to get old. I wrote about it here. My best experiences have been when the kids use squeeze bottles, but you can also just use spoons to pile the paint on the paper before scraping. There is something so satisfying about moving paint around with a scraper. Try it!
- Water balloons We have done this many times and it’s AWESOME! I have not written about it, but I did a little video you can see here. Meri Cherry blog is the one who started me on water balloon painting. Read her awesome post here. Another thing to try is water balloon fights! Kids love this so much, and my 9yr old son just planned his whole birthday party around a water balloon fight. Super easy party (yes!)
- Ice cube painting I’m starting to sound repetitive, but I am a lazy blogger apparently. We’ve done this, too, yet I’ve never written about it. We did it in art camp last summer and the kids thoroughly enjoyed it. But my tip would be to paint in a tray so that the melted water doesn’t drip onto the floor. And, again, use colors that when blended don’t make brown. Here is an excellent post on making ice cube paints from The Outlaw Mom (she uses tempera), and Learn Play Imagine made erupting ice cube chalk!
- Erupting art This is one that I have not tried, but my blogging friends swear by it. It’s a scienc-meets-art type thing. Check out this post here from Hello, Wonderful with 20 awesome erupting art experiences, and this video from Babble Dabble Do. Seeing it in action is so cool!
- Splatter paint More than half of the time my 4-yr old students paint, it turns into splatter painting. Now that they know that this is a technique they are allowed to use, they really do tend to go there quite often. We did a Jackson Pollack day last summer (you guessed it, I have not written about it yet) which was super cool. Read this post here from Classic Play about their Jackson Pollack lesson. Also, read my post here on splatter paint lanterns, and watch this happy little video where my art students splatter paint their cardboard paintings.
And if I haven’t convinced you to go for it, if you are really afraid of the potential mess, here are some tips on how to keep the mess contained.
8 Way to Keep the Mess Contained
- Plan ahead This one is the key to success, in my book. If you know you are going to do a shaving cream marbling then make sure you have newspaper on the floor to dry the wet prints. The kids want to make a ton of these so you need a place to put them. Or if you want to try the water balloon painting, prepare some boxes ahead of time. Planning and prep are an art teachers best friend.
- Use washable paint Everything will come out in the laundry. But…it doesn’t hurt to Shout it out before throwing it in the machine!
- Roll up their sleeves or wear a smock My students’ parents swear that their kids don’t need smocks, I think sometimes they like the look of splattered clothes. And again, we only use washable supplies so everything comes out in the laundry. But when my kids were little, I had them wear a smock. It was just nice not to have to wash the clothes!
- Paper the table with newspaper or butcher paper I do this for every art experience. And sometimes, the leftover paper makes great wrapping paper!
- Use a tray If you have a large tray that is non-porous and easy to wipe down, then have your child do their activity within the contained space of the tray. You could use a tray for everything you do! I know some art teachers who do this. I love these from Ikea.
- Use this rule Stay in your chair (or stay standing) and call out when you are finished and ready to wash your hands. This one really helps when they have paint all over their hands.
- If outside, provide a bucket of water on the ground and a towel right next to your art making table. They can wash their hands and their brushes
- Cover the floor with a tarp I don’t do this because I am afraid my students will trip, and sometimes if you put paper down it can get slippery. Since I use water-based paints, I just wipe down the floor when they’re done. But you can lay down a tarp if it’s just your own kids! Who cares if they fall, right? Ha!
Creativity is messy, or at least it has the potential to be messy. If we, as parents and teachers, inhibit that experience in our kids then we are missing out on the whole point of building a creative life. The point being that we are nurturing our children to be creative thinkers, to think outside of the box and to come up with solutions to their problems. This can only happen when they are free to take chances and to learn from their mistakes. And yes, this can often be messy!
Even if you have a child who doesn’t like to work big and boundless, or who is “neat”, encourage them to get their hands dirty and to get in there and use their whole body to make and create. I wish I had been encouraged to do this more as a child. Rather than sticking to what was comfortable, perhaps big, ugly mess-making would have loosened me up and allowed me to explore my identity in new ways.
When you try new things, you discover more about yourself and you gain confidence at your core. Childhood is a wonderful time to explore these boundaries because small children aren’t yet worried about making mistakes. It’s as we grow up that we become more reserved and less likely to test our creative impulses for fear of failure. How marvelous, then, to have been able to experience those early, artistic explorations as a child. There’s no better preparation for adulthood than a childhood spent discovering your true self through tinkering and messing about.
Enjoy and have fun (that’s an order)!