Thursday, December 31, 2015

Rewind: A Good Mess

A beautiful mess at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Spilling, splattering, strewing, scattering, slopping, dropping, dripping, and piling. There’s just no end to the way children–and adults–can make a mess. But, it can be a good mess.

What would you call a good mess? Are any messes good? Are some messes better than others?
Is a good mess the sort of contained, practical, and well-used mixture that indicates a person is deeply immersed in their work? Does a good mess need to be tidied and rearranged, at least every so often? Or is a good mess something to be lived with, even enjoyed?

Daily, even hourly, a continuous and sometimes fierce skirmish takes place around messes in museums, classooms, and preschools, in homes and backyards. A very active push-and-pull occurs between the value of tinkering and being absorbed and the value of having things orderly, predictable, and not too inconvenient for others.

Children are almost always in the middle of the melee around mess. We tend to think children are intentionally making a mess. But, often there’s simply a mess when a child engages in a process of exploring what is acceptable and what is not; of finding what will happen by squeezing harder on a plastic catsup bottle; or seeing how painted green arms look. Sometimes a mess is not a mess, it’s an experiment.
To be perfectly clear, a good mess is not intentionally misbehaving. It is not willful disregard for order, or an excuse to thoughtlessly leave stuff around for someone else to trip over or pick up. A good mess is, on the other hand, about exploring, playing, creating, and learning.
In the mix and the mess, just the right piece
Who Wants a Mess?
Parents don’t want a mess. Recently I interviewed art educators at a half dozen art museums around the country about their programs for families with young children. One of the questions was, “What do parents want the museum to be, or what role do they want it to play for their kids?” In general, responses were varied: parents want their children to learn about art, parents want to be creative themselves, parents want a safe place for their child. One response, however, was a constant. Parents want the art museum to handle the mess, the mess from their children being creative as well as the mess from their own art projects.

Museums don’t want messes either. Taking care of messes is never-done work: picking up loose parts, returning stuff to its “right” place, keeping floors cleared. Last year, during a planning meeting for a collaborative exhibit project among four science museums, a hot debate simmered about including loose parts. One evaluator spoke up saying, “That kind of a mess is not going to happen in our museum.”

I have even heard board members of a museum-in-planning say that they want their museum to handle the mess for them.

Years ago I was on a site visit to a museum in an early stage of planning and visited a mother-museum educator-board member at her home. When I walked into the dining room, Robin's three children were finger painting on a plastic tablecloth covering a lovely formal dining room table. The children were happy and she was happy too. While this wasn’t quite a full-fledged mess, it was clearly a place where the possibilities of messing around were expected, tolerated, and appreciated. 

I have also heard executive directors say they wish their staff were more tolerant of messes and understood the value of a good mess.
A big mess at The New Museum
The Value of a Good Mess
The value of a good mess is worth considering particularly in settings that are material, object, and information rich–at the project table or in a maker space; in an enchanted forest or in a construction zone; on a chalk-covered sidewalk or in a grocery store exhibit. Any place learners learn through their senses, curiosity, and questions, materials and tools are valuable and necessary sources of information. In those places (and there should be many) a good mess is likely. Exploration leaves a mess. Play is messy. Learning is, or should be, messy. As spaces for exploration, play ,and learning, museum exhibits and programs, preschools, art rooms and classrooms, playgrounds, and community programs should be more on the messy side.
Children play at the boundaries of their sensory exploration. They explore the possibilities that pass before their eyes, through their hands, and around their bodies. A child may explore playfully by mixing substances or perhaps dropping and breaking something. Such investigations are sources of information and also of messes. Adults, on the other hand, are able to play with and within the boundaries of their own thoughts and those of others. They can explore possible worlds and fantasies; they can mix, blend, and bend conceptual spaces. They can stretch, twist, and break up ideas, and hop around in humor and absurdity. All without breaking or spilling things–or trying not to.
For a child, being in the middle of a wonderful idea, pursuing a burning question, or testing a hunch is often being in the midst of a mess. This is how we explore, play, and create. Permission for a level of mess encourages concentration and follow-through on a project, idea, or a step in a process. Order is not required for completing every task. People have a good time when they don’t have to worry about a mess, or whether they are making one. Equally important, a good mess can be inviting and forgiving for the novice or reluctant.
Messing about at The City Museum
  Possibilities Live Here
Underneath a good mess is a thoughtful structure, one that anticipates what might happen in a space or at a table based on the interests and backgrounds of these children or those adults. Thoughtful organization and preparation of a space anticipates possible questions and where they might lead. It considers how the materials presented might provoke a question, extend explorations of materials to reveal their properties, or express a child’s thinking.
Yes, a good mess rests on structure, but not on too much. Structure should leave room for a child, or for anyone, to shape, direct, and complete the experience in any one of a myriad of ways. A step-by-step activity that is all planned out with materials allocated and assigned to each place at the table constricts questions and tempers spontaneous manipulations, backing up, or starting over. In the rich space between structure and an utter mess, the maker-creator-artist-learner is in control. A certain kind of mess may also recognize that a child or adult has a different sense of order, or even that another order is possible. A mess can reveal beauty as well as a new order.

A  really good mess  at the Phoenix Children's Museum
A good mess spills with possibilities. The shifting array of materials, parts, and tools that occurs while a group intently works on something, inspires new possibilities. Novel combinations of colors appear, unlikely pairings of materials are suggested, or an accidental association between disparate objects now makes sense. In a good mess, someone else’s discards jump-start thinking or spark the problem solving that navigates around a pesky obstacle. Picking through or picking up after a lovely mess can suggest ways to order, group, and categorize, can highlight similarities and differences, or prompt a new idea.

A mess is often evidence that things are happening, often the very things we want to have happen. Only we cringe when they really do happen because of the mess. Tom Bedard is an astute observer of this in his Sand and Water Table blog, often referring to corn kernels flying or sand spilling as children wonder, test and discover.

Mess can equal possibilities or it can simply be chaos. It can be something no one thought about that makes a really big difference. A good mess stops just short of being disastrous.
Flying, spilling corn at Tom Bedard's sensory table
Whether it’s flying corn and spilling sand, puddles, dirt, or dough; cardboard tubes or pom-poms; sticks, tops, or hose; LEGO bricks or wooden blocks, plastic pipe or clothes; sheets of foil, plastic wrap; fabric lengths or bows;  boxes, wire, washers, pliers, knobs, or pillows, children need to be able to enjoy a really good mess every now and then. 

Related Museum Notes Posts
• Managing Materials for Making and Tinkering 
Dialogue With Materials


  1. Jeanne, there is much to be learned from messes. As an adult learner, many of my ideas for altering or creating new installations have come directly from too much mess. And, for children, the great learning opportunity that should not be lost is learning how to clean up---even if that means making more mess, as is the case of a child just learning to sweep. Thanks for the shout-out. Tom

  2. Tom,I am so glad you pointed out these other examples of how mess is valuable for adults as well as for children, for thinking and creating as well as for cleaning up.