Messy Play

Most people would think that a house with little ones living within its pebbly walls would be fairly susceptible to the creative output of mischievous little hands.

And of course they wouldn’t be far wrong.

But with all risks taken into consideration, one of the things I love most about having children is the opportunity to get creative with paint and glue and encourage some ‘mark making’ (as it appears now to be known). I set these things up fairly regularly but until very recently activities such as this have left me so frustrated at O’s insistence on turning every creative endeavour …be that painting a flower, painting a recycled rubbish sculpture of some kind or splatter-painting a ‘solar system’….into an opportunity to do handprints that I almost called a stop to it. Indeed one day he went so far as to paint his arms up to the elbows in red paint and pretend he was a superhero. The exercise of getting him up to the bathroom without walls, carpet, banisters, tiles, ceramic, grout or fibre glass receiving a ‘mark’ or two required some doing.

Owen mess

O between the ages of 2 and 3

Another time our potato printing took a turn for the, er, creative (worse?) and ringing the changes from handprints O painted his legs up to his shins in multicoloured neon and ‘ice’ skated across the lining paper I’d temptingly laid out on the floor.


I once braved the exercise, found on a fabulous blog called The Imagination Tree,  of making a sensory tray full of goo in which to practice O’s writing skills. The theory is you give them a thin layer of the goo on a tray and a stick, possibly a toy or two to play with (in this case dinosaurs) and then some letter cards relating to the toy. You then encourage them to spell out each letter in turn, smoothing the goo back over whenever you need to begin another letter. We started off well…


but inevitably it was only going to end one way….


Childcare professionals amongst you would scold me for this failure to celebrate my son’s want to eternally express himself through the immersing of a set of his five digits in goo. And of course I know that crafting of any kind should commence with an ‘invitation’ and have no prequisite outcomes. And ordinarily I’m pretty cool with that… long as one of the outcomes isn’t (yet another) handprint.

That all said, other than craft-related mishaps, incidents of habitual damage in our house have remained few and far between. Friends and family have not been so lucky. One friend had her iPod dunked in Sudacrem. (And for those unfamiliar it’s a bit like Nivea cream but thicker and impossible to do anything with including rub in or wipe off. You just have to smear it on and let it do its thang. Which, to electronic goods, is nothing beneficial…..) Another friend, whilst at work trying to manage a busy department, was emailed a photo by her husband of her children’s crayoned artwork…..drawn directly onto their minimalist white walls.  Precisely the reason why another friend stores her art materials under lock and key whilst household poisons are readily accessible beneath the kitchen sink.  But it doesn’t stop at paint. Or at least, not the traditional kind. My nephew once decided that both his wallpaper and bed linen would benefit from the pop of colour offered by his mum’s NailsInc berry varnish. And my niece once flooded the hallway whilst ‘washing’ her clothes in the bidet. She had the foresight, at two years old, to realise her feet were getting wet so had trundled off to her bedroom to put on wellies, water still running, before returning to the bathroom and continuing with her chores unbeknownst to my sister whose first inkling of it was when the the torrent of water made its way past the kitchen door. Even my mum has had her fair share of damage done. Every flower in our childhood garden, of which my mum had incredible pride, lived in fear of being torn violently from its stalk and macerated into foul-smelling perfume. And I, as a six year old, decided impulsively one day mid handstand (purple crayon inexplicably in hand) that our beige carpet would benefit from having a large cross drawn upon it. I was dumbfounded afterwards and could offer my mum no explanation whatsoever other than “I just did it….” We had a better explanation (“George did it”) for my friends mum when, inspired by his book of Marvellous Medicine, we tipped the contents of her bathroom including her expensive face creams into a mixing bowl and re-bottled it back into the now-empty mouthwash container. (The book is banned in our house).

None of this mixes very well with a home-maker with suspected OCD. The solution, I’ve found, to marrying my need for organisation with the dis-organisation that comes with young children is to ensure there are places and systems for containing the mess. We have some things about which we are not precious (our kitchen floor which is hardy, repurposed maple gym flooring complete with knocks, scratches, dents and other imperfections) and areas where we are very much so (the lounge pale carpet upon which shoes, food, toys, kid’s drinks and even, on occasion, the kids themselves are banned). A necessary part of this acceptance is also in the regular reminding of oneself that mess can be cleaned….and so pouring a gloopy mix of mashed banana and yoghurt onto Baby A’s highchair tray to keep him occupied whilst O and I make ‘monster hands’ whilst baking doesn’t feel quite as terrifying.

Baby A.jpg

Baby A at 7 months old

Another thing I find helpful for dealing with mess is to have set places for set things. The kid’s toy boxes are each labeled with their contents …bricks, cars, animals, superheroes etc…so that at the end of each playdate when the house looks, as S commented recently “as if we’ve been burgled” it takes only minutes to throw everything back into the box where it belongs. Which also has the added benefit next day when the ‘Chief Looker’ is asked “Mummy, where’s my Captain America?” and she can answer.

(NB: I have a house-full of boys none of whom, big or small, would appear to have fully functioning eyes with which to look for things or hands in which to move things.)


But this week my resilience to mess was challenged in spectacular fashion. Stood on the top stair, eyes wide in confusion and hand clamped to his mouth after a night of feeling poorly, O screamed my name. I knew what was about to happen. He, bless him, had no idea. Legging it up the stairs towards him I floundered in my need to console him and my want to redirect him into the bathroom a few steps behind him. I couldn’t find the words. And then it was too late….the floodgates opened and I was covered. Worse…so were the walls, stair carpet, banisters and hallway floor below. Meanwhile Baby A sat downstairs in his highchair, happily redecorating the kitchen with the remaining contents of the bowl of Weetabix I’d left abandoned on his table in my rush to get to O.


Scene of the ‘incident’

“Mummy” said O once he was safely in the shower “Why did all that water squirt out of my mouth? I didn’t like it….”

“I know darling. Its not nice is it? You’ve got a poorly tummy. Stay there” I cooed. “and play in the shower while I clear up.”

Which was easier said than done. I did my best then called in the professionals who had a more thorough go that afternoon. Meanwhile, with nasties now ousted and O in full recovery, we had a calm day on the sofa enjoying cuddles, stories and the first rays of March sunshine pouring in through our windows.

With everyone, thankfully, too tired even for painting…..




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