Messing About with Messy Play: Messy Maths and More

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. Years ago, I was profoundly influenced by the legacy of Frances and David Hawkins. David Hawkins along with his wife Frances, an early childhood educator, were “committed to the idea that in order to best serve children, teachers need to be dedicated learners as well” (Lynch, Shaffer, & Hall, 2009, p. 54). Teachers like children need to mess about. In the words of David Hawkins …

There is a time, much greater in amount than commonly allowed, which should be devoted to free and unguided exploratory work (call it play if you wish, I call it work). Children are given materials and equipment – things- and are allowed to construct, test, probe, and experiment without superimposed questions or instructions (Hawkins, 2002. p. 68).

Every summer, I look forward to having the time to mess about during the Rhythm of Learning in Nature. During this six-day professional learning knowledge retreat, there will be ample time for messing about. We will mess about with materials, concepts and ideas. This is the fourth incarnation of the Rhythm of Learning in Nature. Each year it takes on a different flavour or focus. This year, because of our good fortune to have Juliet Robertson of CreativeSTAR Learning with us we will be messing about with messy maths! Messy Maths: A Playful, Outdoor Approach for Early Years  is Juliet’s follow up to Dirty Teaching: A Beginner’s Guide to Learning Outdoors.

Juliet believes being outside makes maths real and that real maths is really messy. The organizers of Rhythm of Learning, the York Region Nature Collaborative will have both of Juliet’s books available for purchase at the one-day option, I am a Teacher GET ME OUTSIDE August 18th, 2018. Attend this conference and you will have a chance to explore mathematical concepts while you play outside while expanding your professional knowledge. Messy Maths is an easy-to-use reference book with beautiful full-colour photographs and Juliet will be on hand to autograph!

Rainbow Math Sticks.JPG

Three years ago, at #Rhythm2015 rainbow math sticks were a big hit! The idea for these came from Juliet’s website where you will find many more inspiring invitations to play, learn and mess about! Join us at the Rhythm of Learning in Nature or I am a Teacher GET ME OUTSIDE to mess about. Start a new school year inspired to make maths come alive in the great outdoors! Consider messing about to discover the importance of messy play. Messy play should not be regulated just to outdoor environments. Messing about is a process used by teachers to explore and investigate materials and objects in an unstructured way with the intent to make meaning and ideally to come closer to the idea of what it means to teach. Teachers can consider how they learn about how children learn by messing about. By messing about and getting messy, teachers learn the value of messy play. They see the potential of open-ended exploration with loose parts indoors and outdoors. Perhaps a belief in the Theory of Messing About will support the reconsideration of “Pinterest Pretty” and “Instagram Beautiful”. Scrolling through my feed on these popular sites for teachers, I see what seems to be carefully staged displays of table top set ups and arrangements of natural and aesthetically pleasing items touted as Reggio-inspired. There may be meaning behind the pictures and posts, but I don’t see authentic representations of messing about that would give the viewer a glimpse into the relationships and the learning. Recently, I had the honour to facilitate a loose parts experience at a parent/child resource centre in northern Ontario. I took photos of the set up prior to the children arriving as I routinely do but capturing images while the play was in process tells me more. It tells me that there was value given to loose parts play and the capacity of children to use open-ended materials in ways that we could never imagine.

A real messNot Pinterest pretty

One of the most messy days of play that I experienced was a few weeks ago, when the York Region Nature Collaborative partnered with the Kortright Centre to host a day of outdoor play for two local child care centres at Swan Lake which is the venue for Rhythm of Learning. 

Messy playA day of mess

Indoor and outdoor environments should allow for time to “Mess About”. This phase of the process to “Mess About” described by Hawkins – is the time inspired by the words of the Water Rat from the Wind and the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908). Take the time to mess about with messy maths and more!

Grahame quote.png


5 thoughts on “Messing About with Messy Play: Messy Maths and More

  1. I too am excited to play and mess about with ideas, materials, words, concepts, colleagues, and time while in magnificent space and place. We never know for certain how each day will unfold which makes it more magical! See you there!


  2. I love the idea of messing about. I have often told parents in my programs: “This is a messy place, kids get dirty. Inside and Out, that’s the best part of learning!” Mud is a wonderful medium in which to learn. We have been doing some “math” in the forest, it’s a wonderful platform for it.
    Looking forward to exploring more of Juliet’s work.Thanks for sharing the links to Juliet’s website.


  3. Pingback: The Importance of Art to the Development of the Whole Child | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

  4. Great article. However, in reality many early childhood educators face challenges in their room in term of support to keep up with the tidying up of materials. I believe that loose parts bring so much into children’s play and curriculum, however we need to be aware of what is fun-messy and chaotic spaces. More does not necessary means better quality.


  5. Pingback: Professional Life Lessons for Early Childhood Educators | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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