Why Avoiding the Mess Creates More Stress

At the beginning of every school year, I come expecting my students to want to squeeze out tons of paint or glue from our glue and paint bottles. I let them cut up paper even if it means I have to sweep up tiny scraps of paper from all over the floor.  Now I don’t let it get too crazy, but I do give them lots of room to explore.

I not only expect the children to make big messes, I plan for it. I plan mentally, emotionally, physically, and even financially (I buy extra just for the joyous squeezing occasion) for the first few weeks to be messy. I give the children the opportunities to squeeze, cut, and mess away so they have had that experience and they love it.

The path towards self-regulating

After a few sessions of squeezing and cutting to their hearts content, I naturally see most of the children start to regulate their use of the materials. They no longer have this need to just explore the materials. They are now ready to focus on actually using the materials with more intention.  We begin talking more intently about the regulating of the glue and paint. We talk about how it doesn’t take five gallons of glue to stick a googly eye to a piece of paper. We talk about how painting feels much better when we control the amount of paint we use and that we can always add more a little at a time when we need it.

Our discussions of self-regulation and decision-making go on over the next month or so. Gradually reeling the children in so they begin to regulate their use of materials on their own because they get it. The children are now at a place where they want to regulate their use of materials. They find it more satisfying to regulate. And they do a great job regulating the materials.

A change in my expectations

Once my students start to self-regulate, then my expectations naturally start to change. I am no longer quite as tolerant of the glue or paint squeezing frenzy. If I see paper piled up in all over the floor, I feel my anxiety start to go up. So, what do I do? I start lecturing the children because I feel frustrated. “Sammy, using so much glue is really wasting the glue.” “Sally, why did you leave paper all over the floor?” “Alex, I will pour the paint for you today.”

If I see the children not regulating their use of materials like I think they should, I start putting things out of reach or restricting the children’s access to the materials. Even worse, I start doing things for the children. My focus has changed from ‘helping the children to self-regulate’ to ‘being the class regulator’ just to avoid the mess.

We don’t like art

Here’s the problem with becoming the self-designated class regulator. You can’t possibly regulate every child at the same time all throughout the day without removing things from their reach. As you remove things or start controlling the use of everything, the children will start losing interest in art. Essentially, art becomes less fun and the children suddenly start thinking “we don’t like art.”

It is much better to give the children access to the materials and focus on helping the children build their skills in self-regulation by expecting mess to be a part of the process. It is better for you and for your students. As your students learn to self-regulate their use of materials…

  • The children become more competent and you will trust them with more instead of less.
  • The children become more confident and art becomes more fun for the children and you.
  • The children become more independent and are not dependent on you to keep them busy all day.

Personally, I would rather spend my time helping to clean up messes and teaching self-regulation along the way then having bored children complaining about how they can’t do anything or don’t have anything to do throughout the day.

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About the Author:

Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. has been working and teaching in the field of early childhood education for over 30 years. Deborah currently owns and teaches in her own part-time, private preschool called The Children’s Studio. Deborah’s deep passion for teaching and working with young children is documented and then graciously shared with millions of readers around the world through her blog and other social networking communities. Deborah believes that young children learn best through play and exploration and embraces this belief in all that she does in her own classroom so that she can effectively and passionately share rewarding, real- life, tried-and-true practices with other teachers, parents, and leaders across the field of early childhood education.


  1. Julie Shae January 5, 2019 at 9:16 am - Reply

    I love this! And if you restrict use, the boredom becomes behavior! I have always put it out there. The key is helping those who do not self regulate learn. It is ok to say, dot dot not a lot. Bit don’t put away or so it feels them to save a mess. One key is letting them clean up their own mess with direction or a little help when necessary. Another thing they learn is don’t get paint everywhere you have to clean it up!

  2. Myrna P Fileccia January 6, 2019 at 1:46 pm - Reply

    I find comfort in knowing that even an expert like you share the common “frustration” about the mess issue. Sometimes, it is not about the children, but how to meet the expectation of adults that ” A great classroom is tidy, especially when it is time to close the room.” The challenge is how to encourage children to explore art and “soft-selling” tidiness (e.g., If we put those materials away, you will have more to work on next time.) Still, teacher picking up after the children is a “given.” When teachers are on the same page on process art, the less stress and more fun teaching will be! More power, Debbie!

  3. Denise Pillow January 6, 2019 at 10:18 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this very true and excellent reminder as we are heading back after break to make more mess!

  4. jan January 12, 2019 at 10:20 am - Reply

    I have followed this course of action this year and am so pleased with the outcome. This has been my best class ever and I see them sefl regulating and learning. I teach 3k.

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