Thursday, 17 September 2015

Messy and destructive play

It is important for babies and young children to play in ways that are natural to them. Some little ones will carry small toys around in bags and boxes… others will throw everything across the room (often with great accuracy)… some will tip out toy boxes and make a huge mess!

Repeated patterns of play (where little ones do the same thing over and over again) are part of how children learn – their learning characteristics. The importance of this messy, sometimes quite destructive play might not be clear when you first observe a child tipping out all your toy boxes! However, children are learning by being destructive and we need to support their play –
• Provide resources that can be tipped without anyone getting hurt
• Remove excess resources from the room to make the play manageable
• Keep the floor clear for the child to explore
• Explain to the older children how the little one is learning and make tidying up fun for everyone.

When tipping out containers the little one is developing fine and gross motor skills (Physical Development – moving and handling) and finding out about, for example –
• Cause and effect
• Object permanence
• Weight
• Capacity
Once empty, the container might be a hat or a boat. The child might simply enjoy tipping rather than doing anything with the container – if you sit alongside and play with them you can teach them new ways of using the container and the toys they have tipped.

Chunky jigsaw boards carefully set up on the table with animals removed to challenge older children who like to put them together often end up swiped onto the floor by little ones who like to destroy. However, if we sit together with the little one and show them how to lift and replace the pieces they are developing wrist and hand strength and learning about –
• Animals, shapes, fish or whatever is printed on the jigsaw
• Shape – as the child tries to put the pieces back
• Hand-eye coordination
• Spatial awareness
• Patience and self-control – keeping trying rather than giving up

High chair play - we have a couple of little ones who have been through the stage of throwing everything we give them to eat or drink off their high chair tray. We recognise that now is probably not the best time to give them an open cup – but at the same time we are keen to encourage independent eating and parents do not want their child to go home hungry – so we have to find a way of ensuring the child eats and enjoys learning through their play.
We tend to have a rather pragmatic approach to this type of learning – the child needs to throw the object off the chair and look for it so we need to encourage eating by giving them small pieces of food – when the piece has been eaten they are offered more. When they start throwing they are generally full so we remove the food until next meal time.
Young children are learning about –
• Object permanence – the food is there even when it disappears
• Cause and effect
• Distance and speed
• Height and depth

We have a Lego board on a small toddler height table – we often build Lego creations for the younger children to pull apart. They are developing fine and gross motor skills which they will need for writing in the future and –
• Problem solving – as they take things apart
• Learning how things go together
• Exploring shapes and different sizes

Older children love building towers – we show them how to build for the little ones who will take great pleasure in knocking them over. Tell them ‘that’s what babies do – it’s their job – isn’t it fun!’ to encourage their play. When knocking down towers, little ones are developing fine and gross motor skills while learning more about –
• Cause and effect
• Direction as the blocks scatter around the floor
• Playing with other children – the starting points for cooperative play
Play alongside the little one and talk about what is happening as the blocks fall over. Show them how to build the towers themselves.

Our treasure basket has taken years to put together and contains lots of carefully chosen natural resources. I am sure you sympathise with me when I say that my heart drops for a moment when a little one cruises past and tips it over before moving on to tip a few toy boxes into the mix and push everything around with their legs.
This type of messy play is important to the little one who is learning through it and is finding out about –
• Capacity and weight
• Space
• Adult tolerance 

If you set aside spaces for messy play and encourage little ones to help tidy up afterwards, it can be very rewarding to watch them learn and see them happy in their learning. You do need plenty of space to allow them to follow their learning interest – time to let them explore and help them put things away again – patience as you hear your toys being tipped for the nth time – sense of humour as you sing the ‘tidy up song’ again!

You might enjoy reading this blog about decluttering your house and garden … very useful if you have a child or a few children who play in a destructive way.

I hope you find this blog useful. If you have a messy or destructive child you might find it helpful to share with your parents, to reassure them that it's quite normal, their child is learning... and to give them some ideas for extending learning in the future.

Chat soon, Sarah :)