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At our 5 year old’s soccer game today, I looked over to find our 7 year old making a huge dirt hill so he can drive his toy car over it.  I see him filling his hands with dirt and moving it over to his hill.   I see the dirt falling on his pants and his shoes on the way to the hill.  I see his sleeves brush the dirt.

I turn to look at Mickey, seeing him watching the same thing as me.   As he opens his mouth to tell him to stop because he is getting dirty, I place my hand on his shoulder and he knows what it means:  Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff.

let them get dirty

I remind him of this when I know what is happening is more important than what will happen next.   He doesn’t do anything, instead, we watch him play and relish in the fact that he is making a really cool masterpiece over there.   Clothes can be washed, hands can be cleaned, shoes can be scrubbed.  We remember that we are raising kids that know how to play and create, not kids that are afraid to get their hands dirty.

We decided a long time ago, when our first son was young, that we weren’t going to let exhaustion or convenience get the best of us.  Yes, it is easier to tell him not to get messy than to have to soak those clothes for the night.   Yes, it is more convenient to bring an iPad and have him sit with me for the hour, but we didn’t want him doing that.  We were doing what was best for him.  

“When a human sits for longer than about 20 minutes, the physiology of the brain and body changes. Gravity begins to pool blood into the hamstrings, robbing the brain of needed oxygen and glucose, or brain fuel. The brain essentially just falls asleep when we sit for too long. Moving and being active stimulates the neurons that fire in the brain. When you are sitting, those neurons don’t fire. “~

                             Download your own Go Play list of ideas for free- click here. 

Why does he need to play?

“A study of kids across the US reveals that most kids today are largely unable to play without assistance from either their parents or a toy itself. The most imaginative kids in the study were the ones whose parents gave them space and time to figure things out for themselves. The conclusion of the study shows that modern kids need to be rewired in order to fully engage with unstructured play. ~

We look over to see this: 
some days are just meant for playing - yourmodernfamily

You may not fully see the benefits as your child drives his car over that same dirt mound fifteen times in a row, but it is there:

  • Character.  Did you know that play raises self-worth?   When he does it over and over, he is learning to be confident that he will figure this out.   He will learn what works and what doesn’t.   Putting the wheel in that spot with the rock makes it turn to the right.   Moving it over makes it go straight.   He figured that out on his own.
  • Learn Patience. I can tell you that we don’t get it.  If you told me to make a dirt pile and then play in it for 30 minutes, with the same toy car, I’d tell you to find another adult to do it.   Now if you asked Beau, our 7-year-old, he would be happy to do it.  He would turn that 30 minutes into 45 because playing teaches him patience.  It takes time to get that dirt mound just right.
  • Motor Skills. His fine motor skills were certainly in play as he built that hill.   He used his coordination, spatial awareness, hand-eye coordination and more to do this.
  • Happiness. He is getting creative, learning what he likes to do. The smile on his face was proof.

Why messiness doesn’t matter (anymore).

Learn to let go.  Mickey is a Type-A personality and I am a “go with the flow” type of girl.  We are opposites in this.  He likes to be on time, I’m OK to be late.  He likes to follow every rule, I don’t mind breaking the ones that don’t matter too much.  He reads every word of the instructions, I just look at the pictures.   Together, we balance each other out.    We figured out that the things that we would stress about don’t really matter that much.   In life, we need to ignore the little things that don’t matter to be able to see the big picture.

If you are like Mickey and have a harder time learning to not sweat the small stuff, you might want these few guidelines (taking baby steps…):

  • Realize they are learning.
  • Don’t let it get out of hand. (Dirt, bugs & twigs stay outside.  Painting is done at a table.)
  • Use things like Crayola Color Wonder Paint to keep it manageable.
  • Keep a few rules to make life easier – for us, it is that school clothes and church clothes stay clean.

Letting kids get out there and have unstructured play, messy play, the kind of play that makes a parent cringe… is OK.  Sometimes that is what they need.  Sometimes they need us to just let them be kids.   Let them get their hands dirty.

As the old story goes:
When a father told his kids to stay off of his newly planted grass, he was reminded that he was
Raising Kids, Not Grass…

Play is so important for kids (and for you!)   I would love to give you my free GO PLAY chart.  Hang this on your back door or your refrigerator. Look at it as a little reminder to head outside with your kids, play with them and have fun!  (Or use it to give them some ideas of how to have truly messy, fun play! 

go outside


stop watching, start playing
teaching kids to create their own fun

Hi there!

I’m Becky, a former elementary school teacher turned certified child development therapist and blogger. I work at home with my husband and together we are raising (and partially homeschooling) our four children in the Carolinas. I love diet coke, ice cream, and spending time with my family.

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  1. Thank you for these important reminders to play with our kids and grandkids! I will share some of these ideas with my husband, a grandpa who has a lot of negativity about messes, and when toy bins are dumped, or stuffed animals end up all over.

  2. Loving your emails. I too am a mother of four and have been a registered Early Childhood Educator for 20 years. With our youngest aged 7, and our oldest 21 ( with two in between!) it is easy to lose my patience at times with the little guy. This read is a reminder of just how important it is as a parent to just ‘chill’ and let kids be kids. They only get one shot at it! Nga mihi nui, Jane.