Objective: Joy | Lessons Learned from Messy Preschoolers

Sometimes things don’t go as planned. Understatement of the year, eh, mamas?

Earlier this spring, I had the great idea to pack a picnic lunch, a blanket, and a bag full of books, and spend the morning with my preschoolers at the park. The kids could play on the playground, we would enjoy a lovely meal on the blanket in the grass, and we could even have story time in the warm sun. However, when we got to the park, we quickly discovered big puddles on the play structures, mudpits at the bottom of each slide, and a flooded merry-go-round.

Initially, I was disappointed. The kids would need to avoid the puddles, stay out of the mud, and…do what? There is nothing for a kid to do at a rain-soaked park when the objective is to keep oneself clean.

I quickly realized that “keeping clean” is a really boring and anti-educational objective to have, so I kept quiet and waited to see how the kids would respond to the scenario apart from my interference and influence.

Would they be disappointed as I was? Squeamish about getting dirty? Forlorn? Dejected?

objective joy

Quite the contrary.

Laila headed for the merry-go-round and excitedly announced, “It’s all wet!” Nora went straight down her favorite slide, sloshing right into the puddle at the bottom and squealing with delight. After Ella stomped her feet through the biggest mud hole, she just couldn’t resist all the fun that her boots were having and decided to explore that goopy mud the best way kids know how: with her hands. She painted both arms up to her elbows, rubbing nature’s paint in between all of her fingers and completely covering her “canvas.” Four kids orchestrated a synchronized merry-go-round jump into the puddle around it.

objective joy

I bit my tongue on more than one occasion, allowing the kids to discover the cause-and-effect of each choice they made without my intervention or direction.

When Laila chose not to sit down on the wet merry-go-round and decided to push instead, she was able to exercise her right to keep her bottom dry. When Nora chose to slide down the slide over and over right through the puddle and mud slick at the bottom, she was able to practice a budding skill with pure joy, despite my desire to keep her bottom dry and her clothes clean.

Ella’s arms were soon completely caked with mud, and she decided that was uncomfortable and she wanted them clean. I wondered how she would handle this problem, so I watched her explore her options on her own. First, she checked out the drinking fountain, and to our mutual disappointment, discovered a non-working faucet. Then, she sought out a puddle and attempted to wash them in a quarter inch of water. Her enthusiastic attempt was admirable.


objective joy

Finally, we had a group meeting and we all decided that we would toss out our original plan of picnicking in the park, head home to get cleaned up, and enjoy a picnic lunch out in our own yard instead. And not so surprisingly, the kids responded to our new plan the same way they respond to almost everything in life before adults intervene with our own agendas: with joy.

If I had followed my initial instinct to control everything, our outing to the park would have been a huge disappointment where everyone had to stay clean and probably have no fun in the process.

We started the morning with what could have been a disaster. If I had followed my initial instinct to control everything, our outing to the park would have been a huge disappointment where everyone had to stay clean and probably have no fun in the process.

It would have been easier to avoid the mud and make the kids go back home. But instead, the kids explored, frolicked, made decisions based on their own desires and interests, dealt with the consequences of those decisions graciously, and had a blast.

We ended the morning by picnicking in the sun with friends in the comfort of our own backyard, enjoying the sun and each other’s company. I could not have crafted a better day. 

Don’t get me wrong: the kids were DIRTY. Like, super duper gross. So gross, in fact, that they all donned swimsuits and had one last frolic in the bathtub before naptime. And that, too, was an everyday task made joyful through the perspective of a preschooler. I’ve got a lot to learn from these little people.



Lianna is a homesteading mama of three: a sparkly seven-year-old daughter, a joyful five-year-old boy, and a confident three-year-old boy. After graduating from the University of Iowa’s college of education, she started Wondergarten Early Enrichment Home, a multi-age, play-based early childhood program. A self-proclaimed Queen Dabbler, she has a long list of hobbies (from gardening and canning to sewing and painting), and doesn’t mind being only mediocre at all of them. She lives with her husband, mother, three kiddos, dog, cat, rabbits, dwarf goats, and chickens on an acreage in the country. The Cornally family spends their time talking about education, learning how to grow and preserve their own food, and romping around in their woods.



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