You don’t have to abandon hope of a clean house so your kids can benefit from nature.
Most parents fall into one of two camps: the happy-go-lucky one that allows (nay, encourages) their child to get messy, and the one that avoids messy play at all costs. Personally, I’m the latter — but secretly want to be part of the former. I've always envied parents who embrace partaking in messy activities with their kids. I could never quite put my finger on why something as ostensibly fun as baking with my toddlers, for example, causes me to cringe inside. Perhaps it's because I know that at the end of it, I'm the one that's going to be on my hands and knees scrubbing clumps of flour off of the kitchen floors.
Some may say my aversion to messy play makes me a clean freak. And while I can't dispute that, I know there are other parents who are also struggling with wanting to let their kids explore, but in a contained way that allows for more joy than stress.
There's no escaping the fact that having kids is messy. Real messy. Between marinara-stained floors and filled-to-the-brim toy shelves, you, like I, probably have enough on your plate as it is. But since the start of the pandemic — a time where we all were forced to work with what we had — I've realized that messy play, and specifically nature-based play complete with dirt, offers cognitive growth in a different way from your standard go-to Lego-building activity.
I've also realized that I don't have to love seeing my kids play in dirt, but I do need to live with it. Yes, they will get messy. Yes, their clothes will get stained. For me, what makes it worth it is seeing the pure joy on their faces as they discover insects in their natural habitat, or the look of curiosity as they ask me where the water they've just poured into a pile of dirt disappeared to. In these moments, I remind myself that they're kids and that it's their job to get messy. It's my job to create an inviting environment for learning and growth (and draw them a bath at the end of it).
That being said, you don't have to sign away your rights to a clean home in the name of healthy development. As difficult as it may be to stomach, I've developed a system that makes nature-based play enjoyable (and contained) for both me and my child.
Do your research.
Knowledge is power, and when it comes to letting your kids play in nature, knowing all of its benefits can be enough for some parents to accept the mess that comes along with it. As humans, we're wired to learn when we engage with all of our senses — and the same rings true for our children. Beyond the immune-boosting benefits associated with exposing kids to dirt, children need this sensory play to make sense of the world around them. According to pediatric occupational therapist and author Angela Hanscom, the rise in sensory deficits among children could, in part, be explained by depriving them of these nature-based experiences. But by giving them the opportunity to get messy, you're allowing them to create meaningful experiences and explore their surroundings through seeing, touching, and feeling.
Dress them appropriately.
This is a big one, especially if you're new to the whole letting-your-kids-get-messy thing. You can't send your kids out to play outside in the new sweater they got for Christmas and then get upset that it's covered in dirt stains. I found that having designated "outside play clothes" (read: clothes that I don't mind getting ripped, stained, or subject to irreversible damage) manages my expectations and doesn't cause disappointment when they (inevitably) get dirty.
Establish a clean-up routine.
While it's important to embrace nature-based play, it's also important to help children establish clean-up routines. I know that my kids thrive off of routines, so, like most things when it comes to kids, we turn clean-up time into a game — a song and dance, if you will. Toddler A is in charge of collecting all of the shovels and buckets while Toddler B takes care of hosing down the concrete. It took some trial and error to teach them that dirt doesn't enter the house, but I've found that when I let them play freely outside without screaming "no!" at everything, I maintain credibility when it's time to clean up and they're more likely to listen.
Compost bins are not only an excellent learning experience for children, they're also an exercise in tolerating contained messes for you. I'm loyal to compost bins of the electrical variety because it turns leftover bowls of Cheerios, plastic toy wrapping, and other household waste into dirt that my kids and I can later use for gardening. This was a savior during the pandemic and encouraged my kids to learn about planet health, gardening, and recycling. Plus, because they were able to see their leftover waste turn into dirt, it didn't take them long to get into a routine of throwing their scraps into the compost bowl, which also taught them responsibility.
Nature-based play allows children to challenge their senses and engage in different skills, but for a clean-obsessed parent, it can be difficult to sit back and watch a mess ensue. While you may still have to clean dirt from underneath your toddler's fingernails afterward, these tips ensure the mess is managed, and everybody has a good time — including you.
Michelle Rose is a freelance wellness and lifestyle writer with bylines at PureWow, InStyle, USA Today, Huffington Post, Byrdie, and more.