One of the favourite activities in my Mobile junk and nature playground sessions is the mud kitchen. As you would expect, kids get pretty muddy while mixing wombat stew, mud pies and chocolate pizzas. Due to the open-ended nature of the play experience, mud will travel over to the cubby building areas, and get used as a fixing agent or wall cladding (like the wattle and daub days). Even the junk instruments can cop a mud coating. That’s no problem, because it is just mud, and it washes off.
Let’s deconstruct that last sentence. That’s no problem because it is just mud, and it washes off. Key words in that sentence are, no problem, just mud, and washes. These days fewer and fewer educators are concerned with messy play, as they keep up to date with the latest research and understand the enormous learning opportunities it can offer. Parents, on the other hand, seem to suffer mess aversion more than ever before. Every educator has heard a parent warn their child to stay away from the mud pit, or paints, and many have been approached by a parent, demanding their child be kept away from the messy play. Citing a busy work schedule, parents don’t have time to pick up a messy child, then have to clean them. Let alone all the hours spent scrubbing on the washboard to clean their clothes. I would love to print a t-shirt that says ‘Is your kids’ shirt more important than their education?’ A real dilemma is, how do we keep a parent happy, yet offer the best learning environment for their child.
If we uncritically follow the parents request, and guide their child away from messy play, what does this exclusion look like throughout the day. How does little Timmy feel, when all his mates constructed the deepest dam ever in the mud pit, while he gets to draw with crayons (not the red one though, because that stains). What about little Kelly in her Sunday best, having to use pencils instead of paint. How spectacular does her rainbow sunset look. These exclusive practices will affect a child’s wellbeing and connection to their learning community. Some sites have addressed this issue of exclusivity by totally removing messy activities, such as mud pits. That means, unchallenged parental concerns have removed amazing learning opportunities for all children, not just the ones whose parents don’t have automatic washing machines or bath tubs (washboards and outside hose downs must be the reason cleaning is too hard).
The Early years learning framework has children’s learning at the core, yet one of its principles is to work in partnership with parents. How do we counsel these two opposing forces? A few strategies that I have seen over the years seem to be successful.
Have messy play clearly articulated in your site philosophy, parent handbooks and newsletters.
For all new parents, knowing what the sites pedagogical values are before they enrol, will give them the opportunity to know what to expect. They can make a choice if this site is right for them.
Document the hell out of messy play learning.
It’s hard to be averse to a messy play activity, when the immense learning contained in it, is made visible. Whether this is done with annotated photos, learning stories, or through parent discussions, making messy play learning visible is a salient strategy. One site videotaped their child constructing a dam with friends. The play was purposeful, creative, social and full of problem solving. When the parent saw how getting dirty was a side effect of amazing learning, and not the main game, she understood it better.
Have messy play clean up procedures.
Some sites get the kids out of the mud pit and cleaned up half an hour before pack up time (the kids change themselves and put their dirty clothes in their bags). The site provides boots, and spare clothes if needed. Other sites get parents to supply ‘work’ clothes that the kids change into before they head off for their days’ messy work in the kindy.
Listen to the parents
Some parents feel that dirty children are neglected children. They need to be wearing clean clothes in good repair to reflect the care they are giving as a parent. They worry what their community will think if their child is seen walking around covered in dirt, with holes in their knees. This is a real concern that shouldn’t be discounted, as these images are often connected to neglect and abuse. Working in partnerships means, two sides work together to arrive at a point where it’s a win-win situation. If a parent feels they are being discounted, while the educator feels they are the professional with all the knowledge, then trusting relationships cannot be forged. By listening to parents and together working towards addressing their concerns, rich learning environments can be created.