Positive Relationships: Let's talk about ... Dirty children

Who should decide how messy a child is allowed to be when they're at nursery? Annette Rawstrone spoke to a group of senior nursery practitioners.

Q: Why is it important for children to be allowed to get dirty?

We expect our children to experiment with things as much as possible so that they can learn from it. Child-initiated learning involves exploration and being inquisitive - and that's messy.

It's also a risk issue. Children have to be free to experiment, and that often involves getting messy. They need to have a go.

Children can be too clean and then don't build up their immune system - they have sterilised childhoods.

If a particular child does not like getting dirty, then as early years professionals we sit back, make the observations and plan how to introduce that activity to them in a different, positive way so that they can experience different things.

Q: Have you ever encountered parents who do not want their child to get messy?

When babies are first born, it is all about the fact that everything has to be clean. At nursery, suddenly they're allowed to play with cornflour and pick up worms, and parents don't always understand that.

I worked in one nursery where a child wore designer clothes and wore a special apron. No one questioned that it was isolating the child and restricting their play and learning.

We've had a few parents not wanting their children to get dirty because they themselves have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They used to freak out no matter how much we changed the child's clothes.

We'd negotiate with the mum that the child was here to play, but by the end of the day she would make sure that the child wasn't dirty at all. She'd scrub her hands. The child used to point dirt out to us, to make sure she was nice and clean. But she was also taking on board the mother's anxieties. Now, when she is wearing the nursery clothes, she is happy to join in and get dirty.

Q: What reactions have you had from parents about their children getting dirty at nursery?

Quite often it's young parents, in their late teens or early twenties, who have 'designer children'. It is all about how they are seen in the community, or replacing things they've never had. They'd rather go without food so they can buy £60 trainers for their child. It's meant to impress on others that they are being a good parent. It's not surprising that they don't want these expensive clothes damaged.

We have a couple of parents who are designer-draped. But they are very down to earth and have never complained about their children being dirty. I've always said that you can see the day's menu from their son's T-shirt.

But then you can also have the other side, when it is very restrictive and the children know what they should not do within the home environment - 'No, I can't do that, because mummy doesn't want me to get dirty'.

I don't think there's ever been a time when we have been prohibited from allowing a child to get dirty. There are always ways that we can work around that.

It's important to ask parents why they do not want their child to be dirty. Some of the parents I work with have big families living from one room. They do not have a washing machine or space to dry clothes. It's not about them not wanting their child to play, it's about them not having the facilities. In these cases we support the parents and say that we can wash and dry the children's clothes at nursery.

Q: How do you address the issue of children getting dirty with their parents?

When the children start nursery we speak to the parents about putting the children in their old clothes, because obviously their clothes are going to get covered in paint and mess.

There has to be lots of dialogue with parents. When a parent comes for the first visit, we tell them the ethos of the nursery - that it is about caring and learning and exploring.

We have parent workshops and invite them to learn about sensory play. That's when we get the parents who are anxious about their child getting dirty actually realising that their children are benefiting.

Some of my staff members like to wear tabards because they do not want to get dirty. Some staff don't like playing with dirty stuff; they prefer to stick to construction. Then they need to be educated like the parents through discussion.

We talk about it in our team meetings and discuss the benefits of messy play. It is about giving choices and encouraging children. If we're restricted, then how is that going to come across to a child?

If you would like to have your say, visit our discussion forums at www.nurseryworld.co.uk

AN EXPERT'S VIEW

By Diane Rich, co-ordinator of the What Matters to Children team and director of Rich Learning Opportunities.

There has never been an easier time to cope with the aftermath of children who like to explore mud, sand, clay, paint and other irresistible materials. Most households have washing machines, dryers, bathrooms and showers. Some settings have these facilities for families who lack them. So what's the problem?

Educators say that parents don't like children spoiling their clothes and are worried about health risks when children get dirty. Some educators don't like getting dirty. But when children naturally want to know about their world, getting dirty is inevitable.

Finding out what the world is made of is something that matters to children. This involves being out in the natural world in all weathers - touching, getting stuck in, engaging all senses to explore and work with materials like mud, sand and water, clay, and art materials of all kinds. Then children can be creative, take risks and manage themselves. They learn to make judgements about whether to get involved, how far to go and whether to hold back. They learn to manage the consequences of not holding back, or making a slip-up. They see the sense of establishing a simple routine for getting clean and dry; they can be involved in cleaning themselves, changing clothes and deciding whether to go back for more.

Parents are less likely to object to activities that are highly valued. When educators provide opportunities for hands-on, hands-in, full engagement with materials, they not only acknowledge that this matters to children, but give a clear message that this is valued in the setting. When educators get involved, they offer children a real-life example of how to manage getting messy and its consequences. Children see that educators may need to cover up, clean down or change clothes.

Inevitable though it is that children will get dirty, no parent wants a child to appear neglected. Having a simple 'Dirty Statement' offers a guide to parents. It can help to reduce concerns and shows what is valued. A useful start is:

'Children in this nursery will have plenty of opportunity to engage with:

- materials from the real world;

- a full range of art materials;

- opportunities for cooking.

On occasion, children may get dirty or require a change of clothes. It is helpful if children wear easy-wash clothing.'

FURTHER READING

- First-hand Experience - what matters to children by Rich, D, Casanova, D, Dixon, A, Drummond, MJ, Durrant, A, Myer, C, (£25, www.richlearningopportunities.co.uk, tel: 01473 737405).

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