It’s More than a Child’s Mess

by Patrick on June 22, 2010

Illustration of PatrickLast week I visited a progressive charter school in San Diego. It was their family art night. There were musicians playing music, 3D tempera paints, stained glass windows and sculptures. There was even a restaurant where the children were taking and delivering orders. The place looked amazing.

But what caught my attention most was the back corner of the campus. There was a mud hill and a spigot for getting water for the garden. A group of focused nine-year-olds led the charge of improvements on a complicated network of rivers, lakes, and dams. They would turn on the water and watch as the water went this way or that way. It was pretty amazing and an altogether mess. There was mud, shoes getting wet and kids up to their elbows in mucky water.

There were two types of kids at the art night, the group whose parents allowed them to play in the mud and the group who couldn’t. The kids who couldn’t sat on the sidelines dejected. The kids that could were having the time of their lives.

What was being created on the corner of a school yard was much more than child’s play. It was an endeavor in construction. The children had delegated work, collaborated on ideas and resolved disagreements. I listened as they discussed water pressure, force, and the foundational support of the stepping stones. They were scientific and the quality of their conversation was something I strive to capture in the classroom.

The experience for the kids playing was worth the wet shoe. Most adults looked at the mud hill as a child’s mess, but it was something altogether more. It was thinking and works in action. It was a powerful display of the inquiry of children. I catch myself in my classroom wanting to squash my student’s plans, because it will be too messy. I always have to ask myself what matters most – my need for cleanliness or a child’s need to express and create?

The kids’ need always ends up coming first.


Jim June 22, 2010 at 9:28 pm

This reminds me of when my brothers and I would build small rivers in our yard when it was raining. We’d build little huts and a civilation around the river. It was such a fun experience and it taught us about building a community! I’m all about kids getting muddy– it builds creativity!

Melissa July 8, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Your parents knew exactly what they were doing, Jim! Its’ funny, but I recently read an article where doctors and engineers were saying that students entering their schools are not able as nimble with their hands in recent years because they’re not used to getting “messy.” These experiences may be hard to clean up after, but they are so essential to critical brain development!

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