March 8, 2021

Ask Amy- When Your Kids' Creative Projects Are Also Huge Messes

How can I encourage my kids’ creativity and self-directed play while also setting limits on the messes they make?

Erin emailed us to say:

My kids are 3, 5, and 7 and during the pandemic they’ve really played together well and have learned to entertain themselves. BUT they are driving me crazy with all of their “great ideas” and huge projects. I’m talking about packing for an imaginary camping trip with all of their real clothes that I will have to sort and fold later.  Putting on swimsuits on the first warm day of fake spring and filling the kiddie pool with water and ending up covered in mud in 60 degree weather. 

You get the idea. I love their creativity and ambition but I can’t manage and clean up these huge messes every single day. How can I put boundaries around it so it’s not such a disaster afterwards?

Anyone who's ever renovated a kitchen or made a short film has heard of the "Golden Triangle" of project management. On the triangle's corners are three goals: Good. Fast. Cheap. You can pick any 2. You can't have all 3.

When it comes to kids having fun, the three points on that triangle are Child-Led. Exciting. Neat. Once again, going for all three is not usually a reasonable goal. If the kids' messes are really getting to you–no shame in that, by the way– a little more parental oversight might be required in the planning stages. If you really need an hour to yourself, and they're playing happily, there might be an entirely emptied bookshelf waiting for you on the other side.

Even then, there's a difference between a messy playroom and muddy footprints in the kitchen. The latter require immediate and focused effort; the former, if you can stand waiting it out, can be something the kids are in charge of cleaning up, before their next desired activity.

It's okay to put parameters around your kids' big plans that work for you. When it comes to cleanup, why not let these big thinkers and team-planners come up with a group solution? Then be sure to "catch them being good" and heap on the praise when they are actually helpful in getting things back to one.

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