Should teachers and parents get involved when a child avoids activities that could be messy?

The Teacher's Story

NEIL BOUNCED through the doorway wearing well-pressed jeans, a matching turtleneck, and a big grin - always happy to be here. I smiled at his slicked-back hair, knowing that by the end of the day a strand or two might pop up from his cowlick. Apart from that, he will still be the neatest, cleanest child in the room.

Neil is a rough-and-tumble almost-four-year-old. He has a good time and is popular, despite the restrictions he puts on his play by avoiding getting dirty. When a tray with clay was placed in front of him earlier this fall, he drew back, apparently startled at the idea of handling it. For a while, he enjoyed painting at the easel (although he made sure he wore a smock). Then he saw Jamie spill and splash green paint on her clothes, and the easel became off-limits too. Neil has made some progress, though -- he has begun to play at the water table. A few months ago, a bead or two of moisture would have sent him scurrying. This morning I tried hard to persuade Neil to join us in making collages. Handling the gooey paste was obviously distasteful to him, so I agreed that he could go off and build with blocks instead. I feel badly that his fastidiousness is keeping him from enjoying hands-on creative play, and I'm not sure what to do about it.

The Parent's Story

WE CAN'T GET over how different our two boys are. Charlie, who's five and a half, is disheveled 10 minutes after he's dressed for a special occasion. His shirt is never in his pants for more than a minute, and at the end of the school day he looks like he's been living in a mud puddle from top to bottom. But Neil, who's not even four yet, always looks like he's fresh out of a shower.

Charlie loves to help us cook; kneading dough is his favorite kitchen activity, but not Neil's. Charlie's dishevelment and jump-in attitude seem more natural for a young boy, and I am a bit concerned about Neil's super-neatness. Could it be because my very fastidious mother-inlaw stayed with us for a while? She spent as much time with Charlie as with Neil, but could her preoccupation with staying neat and clean have somehow rubbed off only on the little guy?

I was hoping that all the hands-on activities in nursery school would help Neil to feel comfortable and relaxed. But he still won't touch play dough and shows no signs of relaxing his attitude about being neat and clean. He arrives home looking as immaculate as he did when he left. I wonder what the teacher thinks about this, but I hesitate to ask. She might think I am foolish to worry.

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment Neil's avoidance of messy materials is not at all uncommon for young preschoolers. Whether or not a family member has had an influence, some small children start school with an aversion to anything like dirt for their own reasons. Usually, the growth process, and a relaxed preschool experience, allow stringent standards like Neil's to ease.

What Can the Teacher Do?

The teacher should continue to offer Neil opportunities to do whatever the other children in the group do. She is right not to pressure him but shouldn't automatically count him out when it's a day to do squooshing and mushing with messy material. He may surprise her, as long as no one forces the issue. When Neil does take a risk such as getting his hands wet at the water table, she should react with quiet praise and much indirect approval. Occasionally, she can invite him to watch another child make things with play dough or clay. She can also invite Neil's parents in for a lowkey chat about all this, with the main goal of encouraging them to do the same sorts of things at home.

What Can the Parent Do?

It is possible that Neil took Grandma's injunctions like "Be careful not to get dirty" and "Always keep your hands clean" too much to heart. His fastidious grandmother's absence might now make it easier for him to see the difference between play and unhygienic activity.

In all other ways, Neil is doing fine, so there is every reason to expect that his concern about messiness will end. His parents can help the developmental process along by gradually offering him the chance to participate in certain household activities. He might start by handing tools to Dad, who's changing the oil in the car, and he could also assist either parent with late fall planting. In the kitchen, he might stir the batter if he's not ready to knead the dough with Charlie. Neil might also be invited to watch a parent do laundry, observing how simple it is to remove everyday stains and keep clothes clean.

Parents should thank him for his help and praise all of his efforts. Although there is every reason to believe that Neil's concerns will wane, it would be a good idea to keep an eye on his progress over the next year or so.