Positive Relationships: Behaviour - No messing?

Kay Mathieson
Monday, March 24, 2014

Not all children like to take part in messy activities, but this type of exercise has value. Kay Mathieson explains why it is important and how participation can be encouraged.


We have a child who seems to have a complete aversion to anything messy. She gets really upset when we try to include her. Does it really matter if she doesn't take part in messy activities?


All activities in an Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) setting are planned with the child's learning in mind, as adults strive to offer a range of opportunities for experiential learning through play. The adult role is about scaffolding that learning and enabling each child to be included in those activities in an appropriate way. This child is showing signs of distress that must be responded to sensitively.

Starting from our knowledge of the child to date, including her Characteristics of Effective Learning, we should be able to identify her preferred approaches and context for learning. For example, does she prefer to watch an activity before taking part herself, or explore things in a small contained way before on a larger scale? Does she feel more at ease with her learning inside, outside, alone or with others? Gathering this kind of knowledge from parents and our own observations enables us to offer new experiences in a way that offers 'best possible chance' of learning and enjoyment.

The world is undoubtedly a messy place, whether we think of our settings, homes, outside or inside. Although not everyone will relish getting covered in mud, paint or glue, it is important that as individuals we can be at ease with mess and muddle, at least to some degree. So it is useful to support children to be able to tolerate a range of situations without experiencing high levels of anxiety.


'Messy' for many adults has negative connotations linked with being unclean or dirty rather than clean and tidy, which tends to be perceived as a 'good' thing. Sometimes, of course, it is - but to be constantly clean and tidy would exclude opportunities for creatively combining things not usually put together or experiencing subtle differences in texture of materials. Messy activities are many and varied, but would include:

  • planting and digging
  • water and sand play
  • papier-mache
  • playdough and clay
  • junk modelling
  • gloop
  • paint
  • glue
  • cooking.

As the list grows, the importance of helping children tolerate a range of 'messy' experiences becomes increasingly obvious, and this list is by no means exhaustive. There are many reasons why such activities are included in early play opportunities, not least because they help children explore their world in very specific ways. The use and value of developing the sense of touch to differentiate between different textures, processing the sensory information and making connections between the way things look and how they feel is obviously important.

In addition, through these same experiences children build muscle control, dexterity skills and refine the ability to hold fragile things gently, squash playdough and swish their hands through water. The tactile experience in most of these situations is a pleasurable one, especially if those around us are enjoying it too.

So if we accept that getting messy is both inevitable and unavoidable in many situations and that the learning related to the 'messiness' is in fact valuable too, then we need to become advocates for that messiness.



Several things need to be taken into consideration before we can select our strategy to support this particular child. We have already mentioned the importance of the Characteristics of Effective Learning and engagement with parents. We can add to this our shared knowledge of the successful and enjoyable learning experiences this child has had recently. We now have the beginnings of a possible sensitive and responsive way of engaging with her and messy activities.

Some possibilities include consideration of the following questions.

  • Who does she like to be with and feel most at ease with? Identify specific children and adults.
  • What form of messy activity is she least upset by? Cooking and eating the result is very different to sticking your hands in a gloopy slime for no apparent reason.
  • Where is she most relaxed in her learning generally? Observe her to determine whether she prefers inside or outside, a large space or a cosy contained area.
  • How many opportunities has she had to watch others take part with no pressure or expectation that she has to do the same? Some children benefit from being spectators before participating.
  • How small an amount of messy stuff has she been able to explore? Little amounts of anything are much less scary, especially when you are little too.
  • How short a time is it realistic to expect her to engage with the messiness? A fleeting touch in a relaxed happy context is much more constructive than a prolonged tense experience of trying to make yourself touch something you perceive as unpleasant.
  • As we put this information together, we build a picture of a messy activity that will give this 'best possible chance' of a relaxed, pleasant repeatable experience.


It is at times when children are anxious and struggling that we need to be most aware of the principles and effective practice of the EYFS. Our understanding of the Unique Child requires our respect, sensitivity and positive response to each individual child's needs. This includes being their advocate and demonstrating that we are striving to see the world from their perspective to help and support all areas of their learning.

Equally, maintaining positive relationships between their special adults both at home and in the setting must be a priority. Parents' concern about messy play can range from getting clothes dirty to conjuring up images of children constantly looking dirty, which may in their thinking equate with 'uncared for.'

Also, of course, it may be that parents or practitioners themselves find messy things distasteful and unpleasant. Going on a slow but steady journey together, combining increased understanding of each other's perspective, practical compromises and the valuable learning opportunities is the mostly likely road to success.


Download the PDF

Nursery World Print & Website

  • Latest print issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Free monthly activity poster
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


Nursery World Digital Membership

  • Latest digital issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


© MA Education 2021. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved