If I think back to my kindergarten days, some of my favorite more alone moments were time spent finger-painting.  The texture of the paint, its wetness, the patches of thin paint and others with thick clumps – all of these tactile sensations and without instructions other than to let my fingers swirl around the paper were pure delight.  It was a lesson in lack of structure and “pleasurable messiness.”

I bring up this early experience from kindergarten as a way to connect with present-day research on “messiness” in children’s play and some of the purported benefits in life.  As young children we become acquainted and comfortable with our world by acting upon our environment.  We crawl, we walk, we dance, we jump, we hop, we skip, and all with the purpose of getting to know our environment and feeling comfortable in it. With our movement we also define ourselves as individuals and in relationship to our world. Messiness in play where children can touch, tear, smoosh, and the like with their play objects, such as clay, is another way to make connections to their physical world.

Two recent studies have caught my eye in relation to young children being able to be messy in a playful way and to find pleasure in their messiness. What is unique about them is that messiness centers around being allowed to play with their food and seeing if this has any impact upon their behaviors in a positive way.  We usually perceive playing with food through a more negative lens, which was all the more reason that these studies caught my eye.

In one study out of the University of Iowa and cited in the Huffington Post (January 23, 2014), a group of toddlers were allowed to be messy with foods, which including poking, throwing, feeling, and eating what was put before them. The researchers reported that those children messing around with their food learned words associated with these foods more easily than children without this experience.  While it may be a stretch without longitudinal studies, allowing toddlers and young children to have messy food play time may have implications for faster learning as well as curiosity for learning.

The other “messy-food” study that peaked my interest involved allowing picky eaters the opportunity to play with their food. The article appeared in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (July 2015 Volume 115 Number 7).  In this particular study by Helen Coulthard, Ph.D. and Dipti Thakker, MSc, toddlers were given the opportunity to get messy with mashed potatoes or gelatin by being asked to search for a toy soldier placed inside the food.  Children were encouraged to search with their hands.  Those children allowed to play with their food showed greater willingness to try new foods.

The explanation for this phenomenon is unclear.  One personal thought is that picky eaters may be hesitant in general in exploring their world.  Research reports tendencies of picky eaters to be more anxious than many other children. Encouraging picky eaters to be messy with food may in fact result in less anxiety in exploring their world, including the world of new foods.   This is just one of many possible hypotheses on the topic. I would love to hear from readers any other thoughts on the subject.  The research on messy food-play and learning as well as making more adventurous food choices is only on the horizon, but from reading so far is some good food for thought.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”- Hippocrates