Instead of a mess, it is sensory play! What is this wet, cool, slimy stuff that sticks to my skin? What is happening to my skin? It splashes, wet and thick with a very satisfying splatter when I hit it. How can I own it? These are the thoughts of an infant first encountering paint, or any art medium. We look at the face-hands-shirt-diaper-toes covered with paint and our adult brain instantly says "Ah! Mess! I'm going to have to clean this up...". I challenge myself to push that aside and glean from their pure joy at exploring this new texture and their ability to effect it.
When we slow down and look at the process of what an infant or toddler is focusing on, the mess disappears and the discovery begins. I've been struggling recently with the frequent use of the word "messy" when it comes to infants and toddlers. I feel like it is such a grown up concept, messy, especially when it is used to describe an art project (or the aftermath on toddler skin and clothes) or toys scattered around the room after a very intense morning of focus.
When I see the aftermath of our exploration of physics (soft balls scattered across the room) or science (Camellia petals pulled from their base, ripped apart, abandoned) or a moment of frantic dancing with silks as our favorite song plays, it reminds me of the beautiful and free moments of our day. The children are using their senses to the fullest possible as their natural instincts drive them. Infants and toddlers are innately sensorial beings, so tasting paint and squishing leaves gives them the most information possible. They are driven by their need to gather knowledge.
Later, once the qualities of something become known because of the sensory first exploration, a child is able to have a strong mastery over whatever it is. It turns from an object or texture to a tool. The paint becomes walrus skin, which involves much story telling and layering of paint until the child is satisfied with the color. Paint tools are used precisely to make the design or sensation the child is going for. Games begin from balls being thrown, or music and rhythm arise from the banging of toys. Because they have this basis of what they are working with, the only limits being safety of self, peers and materials, the child can now use it with confidence.
So children might be messy, but when you take away that adult idea of messy, all that you are left with is problem solving, confidence building, imaginative, creative, inspiring work.