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Making a Good Mess

Sometimes being messy is the very best thing you can do for your relationships.


It all started the first week of my job as an afterschool Program Leader job. I had just been hired to teach a small group of girls in kindergarten and first grade literacy and girls empowerment. Though there was established curriculum for the literacy lessons, for the activities I was given free reign.

It was a long day at the beginning of the school year and the girls, especially the kindergartners, were struggling to adjust to the length and structure of all-day kindergarten. Trying to teach a literacy lesson, no matter how engaging it was, wasn’t going to happen. So, with a bunch of old t-shirts I had in my car for just such a creative emergency, I equipped each of the girls with smocks, for the simple fact that my t-shirts covered their entire body sans ankles and feet. I team led the activity with a group of girls from a neighboring school, and we let the girls play with shaving cream for an hour or so. No tarps, no rules, in someone else’s classroom.

Understandably, my co-leader was a little anxious, it sounds like a recipe for disaster, and most adults wouldn’t attempt it, but I wasn’t any adult and I plowed on through. I gave each of the girls about half a cans’ worth of shaving cream, and within ten minutes each of them were laughing as they sculpted towers, castles, animals and anything else their imagination enticed them with on the top of their tables. They were ecstatic.

The activity may sound like a recipe for disaster, but, remarkably, and luckily, for me, it wasn’t. Not only did the girls have a great time, the shaving cream cleaned the tops of their tables — a nice side benefit in the world of elementary school where every exposed surface is a veritable petri dish of germs. Though the activity went FAR longer than it should have, everyone was having so much fun I couldn’t cut it short, especially in the first month of school.

On a more functional note, that activity set the tone and built cohesion for our classroom throughout the school year. It told the girls from the get-go that we all need time to take a break, have fun, and, yes, even make a mess sometimes. That mess-making is an essential part of learning, growth, and relationships. When things got hard, it was this activity, and others, that reminded us that what was most important was the relationships we had with each other.

When life gets messy, as it does for all of us, even though we often hate to admit it out loud, its these times of play that keep us going, that connect us to each other and make us more resilient through the hard stuff because we have people to turn to.

Frankly, sometimes things need to get a little messy, sometimes a lot messy, before we can dust ourselves off and move on. We are by no means tables in need of cleaning, but the process of relating through pain with another human being heals us and helps us stitch ourselves back together. Yeah, we won’t look the same or be quite the same person afterward, but when we connect with others we heal. When we take time for relationships, time without agenda or ulterior motives, we learn. We can also become more compassionate, open, honest, and real — if we choose to. And, really, couldn’t the world use a whole lot more compassion and wholeheartedness right now?

Life is messy, but when we embrace the mess, good stuff comes. Whether it’s 24 five and six-year-old girls shrieking with delight or simply the knowledge that we are not the only person who doesn’t have it all figured out — and that, in and of itself, is a BIG deal. Messy can be productive, and sometimes, it can, dare I say, be fun.

Another messy, group art project

Originally published at medium.com

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