The myth of mess: Thinking about messy visual arts experiences

This article was recently published in KU Professional Learning Quarterly (April 2019 edition). The text of the article is reproduced here with permission from KU Children’s Services. You can subscribe to and access issues of KU Quarterly online HERE.

Messy art

Do you love messy art making with children? When you see social media images of children covered in paint do you cheer or cringe? Many will have seen (or even made) foyer display posters which feature a deliberately paint splattered outfit surrounded by words such as engagement, respect and creativity and urging families to embrace messy play as an inevitable, fun-filled pathway to exploration and creativity. Does art-making that results in stains and splatters truly achieve the creative and developmental outcomes these display posters claim?

Is the claim that such mess making achieves such outcomes a valid one? [source unknown]
As a parent and early childhood practitioner of many years and now as a university lecturer responsible for training pre-service teachers, I truly appreciate the much-contested fine line between open-ended, free exploration with materials and the point at which such exploration has the potential to become destructive or even disrespectful of the preferences and dispositions of individual children and adults. Many early childhood educators unquestioningly believe that messy visual arts play is automatically a form of creative expression. However, as reflective educators, it is important that we ask questions and challenge our assumptions about messy visual arts experiences.


For example:

  • Does mess-making always equal creativity?
  • Do I avoid planning arts experiences because they might be hard to manage and clean-up?
  • Do my pedagogical choices and preference constrict or expand children’s visual arts learning and development and creative potential?
  • Do messy visual arts experiences challenge notions of sustainable practice and use of materials?
  • How can I respectfully consider the cultural and personal preferences of parents in relation to visual arts experiences that may be messy?
  • Do ALL children love messy play experiences or do some children experience distress?

My PhD research, which explored the visual arts beliefs and pedagogy of early childhood educators in four Australian early childhood centres, revealed a range of contradictory beliefs about messy arts experiences.

Several participants valued messy play, while others questioned the assumed links between visual arts mess-making and creativity.  Some paid lip service to the creative benefits of messy arts experiences, yet ironically avoided mess-making activities in practice. Other participants noted the tensions created between staff and parents about mess-making, concurrently explaining the need to advocate for children’s right to free expression through messy play, while admitting the demands of child supervision sometimes restricted the types of experience offered in order to avoid the need to clean up messes. Additionally, educators who romanticised messy arts play as a therapeutic experience tended to be those who defined a child-focused curriculum as one where all choices made by children are accepted, regardless of whether the choices were wasteful or destructive with materials or had questionable educative value.

This confusion about how to define quality in relation to artistic and creative experiences suggests that there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the types of pedagogical approaches that best support visual arts related learning and development.

Perhaps you experience such contradictions in your own workplace?

To support theoretical reflection about the issue of messy art-play, it is interesting that well-respected scholars suggest the belief that messy visual arts activities build creativity is a long held early childhood myth (Eisner, 1973-74; Jalongo, 1999).

Eisner (1973-1974) clarified that while visual arts engagement can foster predispositions for creativity, it should not be positioned as the therapeutic key that exclusively unlocks the child’s innate creativity. My own research suggests that educators hold very tightly to a range of visual arts myths when then they lack confidence and knowledge with visual arts processes (Lindsay, 2016).

John Dewey challenged the romantic belief that children’s choices should always determine the curriculum, suggesting such beliefs potentially substitute chaos for education and restrict children’s access to meaningful learning experiences and subject content knowledge (Weiss et al., 2005).


John Dewey (1859-1952), [online image], sourced from


Dewey (1938, p.13) challenges us, stating:

“The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative. Experience and education cannot be directly equated to each other. For some experiences are mis-educative. Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience.”


This idea –  that the experiences presented to children may not always be valuable in educational terms, reminds me of Csikszentmihalyi’s (1996, p. 28) assertion that genuine creativity (defined as “any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one”) is only possible when a person has gained mastery within a domain.

I therefore wonder, whether instead of automatically describing children’s early play and exploration with arts materials as creative, we might instead describe them as being inventive, experimental, focused and curious – all characteristics that potentially foster a sense of wonder and a joyful attitude to learning?

Choosing to position creativity in these terms removes it from the realm of prodigy and giftedness and places it firmly in the everyday practices we employ in early childhood settings.

So…does mess-making foster children’s creative potential?

I suggest that the answer to this question is sometimes “absolutely yes!” – and sometimes “absolutely no!”

The answer to this question depends on many things. It depends on the child. It depends on the context and it also depends on the intentionality and sensitivity of the educator. When it comes to messy arts experiences, rather than assuming that mess-making is an inevitable pre-cursor to learning and creativity, I suggest that we must be willing to accept that sometimes mess is just mess.

Sometimes it may actually close down opportunities for growth and learning.

Messy arts exploration can be an important first stage of exploring materials, but I would like propose the challenge that it should only ever be the beginning and not the end point of a child’s relationship with visual arts materials and processes.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Kappa Delta Pi.

Eisner, E. (1973-1974). Examining Some Myths in Art Education. Studies in Art Education, 15(3), 7-16.

Jalongo, M. R. (1999). How we respond to the artistry of children: ten barriers to overcome. Early Childhood Education Journal, 26(4), 205-208.

Lindsay, G. (2016). Do visual art experiences in early childhood settings foster educative growth or stagnation? International Art in Early Childhood Research Journal, 5(1), 1-14. Retrieved from

Weiss, S., DeFalco, A., & Weiss, E. (2005). Progressive = Permissive? Not According to John Dewey…Subjects Matter! Essays in Education, 14. Retrieved from




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