On Making Messes and Granting Space

One of my fuzzy goals for this year (which I don’t think I told you about) is to nurture my kids’ talents and encourage their interests. This goal was daunting, not only because it was fuzzy, but because I just didn’t know how.

I’ve spent over five months thinking it over. I’m still no expert–not even close–but I’ve developed a framework for what it looks like at my house, and I’m going to write a few posts exploring this a little. (If you don’t have kids, no big deal–these tenets work just as well for me as they do for my little ones.)

Let’s cut to the chase: nurturing my kids’ talents looks like a giant mess. 

This isn’t the obvious starting point. I wanted to begin this series with the Lofty and Idealistic–because I love exploring the Big Thoughts more than I like sharing bad news–but let’s face it: working on this goal looks pretty chaotic in the day-to-day.

In the past few months, I’ve realized that encouraging my kids’ interests means giving them space to create. The creative process is a mess. And the bolder the project, the bigger the mess.

This used to drive me crazy. (Want proof? Try here. And here.) But I’m coming to terms with it, with the help of a friendly nudge from The Nester. (And this Simple Mom podcast where she and Tsh delve into the concept a bit more.)

I’m granting my kids the space they need to create, and make messes. And it looks like this:

My firstborn (age 10) is extremely frustrated that LEGO doesn’t sell a Titanic set. So he’s making one:

making a mess 1

We’ve checked a dozen boat books out of the library. He’s researched and built and re-built. He’s penciling out directions (because LEGO sets come with directions). He’s been working on this project for months, and we’ve designated a special space that he doesn’t have to clean up every night for this project.

My oldest daughter (age 8) loves to sew. Right now, she wants to be a fashion designer. Or a seamstress. Or a tailor.
making a mess 2

She is constantly sketching new concepts, drafting new patterns, creating new projects. And–after many arguments about the scope and the mess–we’ve granted her this space, where she doesn’t have to clean up her work after each sewing session. She has to clean up after herself (at least a little), but her current project can remain as-is, ready and waiting for her to pick back up tomorrow.

My second daughter is 5: she’s uncovering her interests and discovering her talents. She spends a ton of (self-directed) time doing art. She has an “art desk,” but it can’t hold all her big ideas (so she says).

making a mess 3

Encouraging her creativity looks like letting her spread her spreading her materials across the living room floor, and leaving them until the project is done. (As long as it’s done by the end of the night, at which point she scoops them up and puts them on her art desk.)

I have no idea which interests will stick for the long term, but it doesn’t matter. We’re laying the foundation, establishing the habits, creating the rhythms. In the long run, this is a good thing.

In the short term, it’s pretty messy.

What do you do to encourage your kids’s interests and nurture their talents? 

nurture yours kids' interests and talents (even when it's messy)


Leave A Comment
  1. I love this post, Anne, thanks for sharing! I don’t have kids yet but encouraging high school and college students’ strengths and helping them grow into who they were created to be is what my coaching company is all about. After reading this post, I think I need to put more of an emphasis on letting my students know that it’s going to be a messy process and that’s ok. I also need to live this for myself rather than expecting everything to be neat and tidy (how I prefer life to be)! Thanks for your thoughts on this subject.

  2. Shana Norris says:

    First of all, it’s way cool that your 8 year-old daughter sews. I can’t imagine letting mine loose with a sewing machine. Of course, that’s probably largely due to the fact that sewing machines intimidate me to no end.

    This post is definitely food for thought for me.

    Similar but not exactly the same: I’m trying to figure out a way to store sports equipment (baseballs/softballs, gloves, bats, soccer balls and cones, etc.) in an easily accessible spot without cluttering up our back porch. The concept is the same: I value physical activity and want to encourage the kids to get outside and use all that sports equipment while still having some semblance of organization and visual appeal on the porch.

  3. Firstly, I’m way impressed by your son’s architectural skills :).

    This post is such a good reminder that my kids need space to be creative and explore–and that the mess is worth it. I will try to remember that the next time my 3 year-old wants to paint. 🙂

  4. We kind of do this naturally — partly because I don’t care that much about messes. I can’t imagine making a kid take apart a big project just because of some strange need to have everything put away at night. Is the house going to be inspected in the middle of the night? It will all just come out again in the morning, and the time spent putting it away is time no one ever gets back. We have people over often enough that we pick up a bit before that but on a day to day basis… eh.

  5. Erika says:

    Hey, I think it’s great that you’ve been doing this. I also hate messes but I do believe that what you are encouraging here is important. I noticed you are keeping rules aorund them – they have to stay in their space and clean up when they aren’t in their space. The kids are learning not only creativity, but discipline. I’ll remember this for the future. 🙂

  6. Sarah Beals says:

    I love this post. Your kids will love you forever for letting them make creative messes. Sometimes I want to tear my hair out b/c we have art supplies, paint, snippets of paper, etc…around, but then I remember that art is a process and sometimes progress means temporary messes. Hope you are well, Anne.

    • Anne says:

      This is such an interesting perspective coming from you, the painter! I’m kind of surprised it makes you want to tear your hair out…because painting is your thing! That’s oddly encouraging, Sarah. 🙂

  7. Jodi says:

    Andy and I were just talking about this! We have both benefited from having our own creative spaces and he pointed out the kids might benefit as well.

    I look forward to reading your other posts.

    • Anne says:

      Oh, interesting. I’ve “seen” your creative space but I didn’t know about Andy’s. I do know how much I’ve loved having my own space that was just recently created.

  8. Jeannie says:

    I really enjoyed this post; thanks especially for sharing the pictures. I love your kids’ creativity and ingenuity. My son’s most avid indoor interest is jigsaw puzzles. They are EVERYWHERE. One day about a year ago he thought it would be fun to take a dozen or so puzzles and dump all the pieces into one big container. We’re still dealing with unsorted pieces. >:( My daughter’s forte is writing: now that she has her own laptop she no longer has a huge mound of loose pages on her desk. (The mounds of loose pages in her room? Cleaning that up will be a summer project.) But let’s face it, some interests just require space to spread out!

  9. This spring I moved the legos and a big table up to the boys’ bedroom. They can keep there projects and even all the loose legos that they want out on the table. They have to pick up the floor before bed every night. I think it is a good compromise.

  10. Tuija says:

    This is such an inspiring post! The Lego space looks wonderful and the Titanic project is really impressive. And I love the other project spaces, too.

    Good for you for encouraging your children like this!
    I think it would require very special tenacity in a child to carry out a big, long-term project if it has to be all cleaned away every night. This way, you’re helping them to start big projects and also get them done – such a big boost to their self-confidence when they can look back and see what they’ve accomplished.

  11. Tim says:

    I think you hit on how to nurture and encourage their interests, Anne (despite your assertion that you didn’t know how). One of the bug ways we can do that is just to let our kids have at it and not get in their way. The work spaces they don’t need to clean up is a good way to do that.

    For us, we have a room that most people would furnish as the living room. We’ve never furnished it. It’s full of games and toys and sports equipment, and the kids have always been able to spread their stuff out there and elave it. Every once in a while it needed a general putting away so that they could go in new directions, but it was a room where they and their friends could spread out and play without asking permission first.

    Now that our kids are 22 and 20, we still haven’t furnished that room. After all, we have friends with young kids and it’s nice to have a place where they can walk in, plop down and play.

      • Tim says:

        I’ll paint a picture for you, Anne. Imagine a very unkempt room with stacks of books, a bin full of sports equipment, stacks of tubs of toys, a small basketball hoop on a wobbly stand, a foosball table. There you have it. Oh, and a swimming pool out back. Great kid place. That’s why you guys have to come out to California some time!

  12. jessica s says:

    I love that you want your children to be able to work on their passions! But I get the frustration with the mess: my bedroom is a good indicator of my life these days: if my dresser is a foot deep in stuff, that’s probably a good indicator of how overwhelmed I am, whether it’s emotionally, mentally, or socially.

    Regarding the mess, I always remember the one big rule my mom had about messes. She would always tell us that we had to clean up one mess before we started another. So it was fine if we wanted to play legos, and then move on to drawing, but we had to put the legos away before we started getting out the crayons, paper, colored pencils, etc. It helped us to concentrate more on one thing at a time, and now we’re much better about cleaning up our messes before we start new messes!

    • Anne says:

      I love your mom’s rule! I’ve thought about implementing a similar (Montessori-derived) rule in my house, but I’ve never mustered the self-discipline to follow through. As of now, my kids can only create one giant mess at a time. Multiple little messes are okay, though. At least, that’s the de facto rule. 🙂

  13. Breanne says:

    I love this honest approach to encouraging your kids. The mess of the creativity can drive me a little crazy sometimes but I know that is so needed for the kids (and myself). My girls are little so I have a lot more boundaries around them but for the most part I try to be hands off.
    I am super impressed with your kids creativity and with how you have fostered that in them.
    A space to create and to be is so vital for each person.

    • Anne says:

      The comments on this have really made me realize the truth in what you just said–namely, that grown-ups need space to create, too.

  14. Courtney says:

    We’ve heard of Fakebooking…there’s a blogging version of that too – only posting the highlights. It’s so refreshing when bloggers post real moments, real messes. You’re one of the relatable ones!

    • Anne says:

      How have I never heard the term “Fakebooking”??? That’s perfect.

      I’m glad you find my messes relatable and not appalling. 🙂

  15. Alia Joy says:

    Your pictures look so much like our messes. My oldest son also has several Lego projects in the works and in the process has a minefield of Legos spread on sheets across his bedroom floor which make it impossible to enter without getting mortally wounded. My daughter divides her time between art in her room (lots and lots of art) and sewing in mine. She has a doll apron that she’s been working on and every time I pass the coffee table and sewing machine in our room with all of her stuff, I’m tempted to pack it all up but she’s still learning and needs help so it stays. Sometimes I swear, I’ve wanted to plop them in front of the television just because when their eyes are glazed over, they don’t mess up the house, but I love the end result of letting them have that creative messy process and if messes are any indication, it’s working. Love this post, Anne. Can’t wait to read more.

    • Anne says:

      Alia, I love that you can relate to this, but it also makes me sad…because our kids would LOVE each other. Bend is probably a bit far to travel for a playdate. 🙁

  16. Kate says:

    Thank you for posting this! My kids are always in the middle of projects (they are currently hammering away at something in the garage). There are often piles of books and projects around our house. While I love the creativity I am sometimes envious of people with immaculate houses…but then I think I would rather be a kid in our slightly messier house.

  17. Andrea says:

    This is something I want to work on this summer as well, so it was a very timely post for me! I tend to crave order and cleanliness in my house but with 3 boys home all summer, that’s just not going to happen. I’m trying to figure out the best way to make it work in our full-of-character but small house.

  18. Pingback: Weekend Links
  19. Amber says:

    I just want to scoop you all up in a giant hug! I get so excited that your children get to be creative, that they WANT to do that kind of stuff rather than spend their day in front of the TV, and that YOU as a mom are encouraging them and letting them make messes and dream big. I have a mom like that, and I am convinced that it’s because of her letting me make messes all over her house that I have my own sewing business today. 🙂 Kudos to you!

  20. Julie says:

    For Mother’s Day, I asked my husband to get a custom vinyl wall art thingy for my kitchen to remind me of this. It says Proverbs 14:4 “where there are no oxen the manger is clean.” One day I will be sad my manger is so clean so today I am embracing the mess from three little oxen. 🙂

  21. Very true!

    Recent statistics here in Australia even says that Parents need to be more creative in telling their children to clean up their stuff!

    To answer your question, it was actually our daughter that inspired us to encourage her to be more creative. She wanted us to make her drawings as plushies. 🙂 And now we are making plushies for other kids as well. 🙂 it’s such a priceless feeling when we see kids turn thier drawings to stuffed toys.

    Good article Anne, I’ll be sharing this in Twitter. 🙂

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.