The mess of real learning and how to survive

Written by Kari Patterson of Sacred Mundane.

It was Nature Day, and the kids were happily scattered across the property, smeared with mud, rosy-cheeked from the fresh air, happily lost in the world of all things wild.

I came through the back door and into the kitchen to get some water. As I stood at the sink I was vaguely away of some cereal bowls on the counter, but paid little attention. (A few dirty dishes aren’t exactly out-of-the-ordinary around here.) Suddenly, something flopped out of a bowl and splashed water all over the counter.

Gah! Finally focusing on the bowls, I realized one held a large newt, and the other bowls contained jelly-blobs of newt eggs. The newt continued thrashing about in the cereal bowl, splashing water right where I meal-prep. *sigh* You might think my boy was to blame, but I knew better. I called out the door,



I’m sure it’s different for each of us, but I know for me, the mess of homeschooling is a real challenge. Some days, the idea of packing my child a neat-and-tidy lunchbox, containing his books to a backpack, and sending him off to dirty a different dwelling than my own sounds very, very appealing.

The reality is, all our meals are eaten here, at this house, in this kitchen, at this table. Every crumb falls on my floor. Every dish goes in my sink. There is no janitor or cafeteria-crew. All the books, papers, craft supplies, science experiments, sports gear, shoes, coats, art materials, musical instruments … all of it is contained in my house. The same one where I live. The same one I clean.

And clean and clean and clean.

The struggle is real. Homeschooling places a very real demand on your physical space, and the temptation can be (if you thrive on order and cleanliness, like me) to control, control, control. Neat and tidy spaces. Neat and tidy learning.

But then there’s the reality that true learning is rarely neat and tidy. Oh how I wish that all learning could be contained in a book to be read! And yet, no book rivals the riveting real-life experience of watching newt eggs grow, week after week, larger and larger, in a glass vase on your window-sill.

No encyclopedia-entry is a the same as poking seeds down into soil and patiently waiting, then discovering one spring morning that a hundred happy green shoots have grown up overnight and leaned eagerly toward the sunshine.

In How Children Fail John Holt explains that “science experiments” aren’t usually experiments at all. They are controlled demonstrations, developed by adults, to show children something about science. We usually get them from a kit, and we almost always know what the “correct” outcome will be.

While there is certainly merit in these (who doesn’t love a vinegar volcano!), these are, in fact, “demonstrations” designed by us. True experiments are things they try out, play with, and create themselves, meanwhile making innumerable connections and discoveries along the way.

Why does this matter?

The fact is, information gathered by one’s own initiative sticks. The more we encourage our children to try out their own experiments, theories, and ideas, the more they will remember. The more we allow them to manipulate their own data, research what intrigues them, and interact with the natural world around them, the more they will learn, grow, and remember years down the road.

“An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

But, dear Mama, I get the reality: That ounce of action just produced a ton of laundry.


I decided that for two weeks I’d take pics of the experiments and discoveries my kids made, with nature, that made messes.

Well, I couldn’t even capture them all. One day we moved the seed trays and found a decomposing worm-carcass with a thousand ants swarming around (“Oh…I’m sorry, Mom. My worm must have escaped.”)

The bathtub needs scrubbing almost daily as muddy bodies are constantly getting cleaned. Those Carhartt overalls need multiple times through the heavy-duty wash cycle, and I still have fir needles falling out of the dryer every time I go to fold.

And it’s so worth it.

It’s worth it to see the light of discovery in their eyes. It’s worth it knowing they spent no time on screens today, but hours in the fresh air and sunshine and glory of creation.

It’s worth it to see their joy and sheer pleasure of making connections, learning, and hungering for more. It’s worth it to hear them tell their grandparents, “You won’t believe what I found today!”

It’s worth it.

But there are days I’m sick of a mud-lined bathtub, so here are a few ways to survive the mess of real-life learning:

Make a few reasonable rules and stick with them

Sometimes I’m tempted to buckle down and bark out orders that all forms of nature are banned from the house.

No sticks, bugs, leaves … and certainly no larva of any kind.

But when I see him, every morning, crouch down low by the window sill and inspect all his growing things, flourishing there in the warm sun … why would I ban this delight?

But it’s limited to just that – the window-sill and area immediately below it. Part of learning is also learning to respect rules and boundaries, so carefully consider what yours are, and stick with them.

Insist on responsible clean-up

How big can their experiment become? As big as they can clean up themselves.

Of course, it’s way more fun to concoct some newfangled recipe, but how fun is it to sweep up the flour and wash all the measuring cups?

But that’s a critical component they need to learn just as much as why baking soda matters in those monster cookies.

We earn the freedom to create and explore and experiment as we demonstrate the ability to clean-up afterwards.

Join them in their joy

The quickest way to grow weary of their endless experiments is to stay distant, distracted, and uninvolved.

Strangely enough, when we get low, lean in, and listen, the fingerprints on the glass fade away because all we notice is that spark, the light in their eyes as they learn, discover, grow.

Even as I was typing this, my son asked if I’d go with him down to our pond. I was so tired (Did I mention I’m pregnant?), I SO wanted to stay on the couch, but I laid aside my laptop, slid on my mudboots, and tromped across our property down to the pond.

Often, all I notice is his mud-stained clothes and filthy fingernails, but being down there with him–I could see his fascination. The whirligig beetles, backswimmers, water-skippers. Later, as we walked back up, hand-in-hand, I thought how I happy I was to wash his muddy clothes because there’s no substitute for this kind of learning.

Memories made, heart-strings tied together, lessons learned, wonder gained.

It might be messy, but I’d say that’s a lovely education.

How do you encourage (and endure!) this kind of learning in your home?

About Kari Patterson

Kari Patterson and her family live out in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. As a 2nd-generation homeschooler she espouses the same philosophy her own mom did in the 80s: Cultivate a love for learning and one's education will never end. She bakes bread, brews kombucha, speaks at conferences & writes at Sacred Mundane. Her new book Sacred Mundane is available now.


  1. Bethany F says:

    I love this, Kari, & am so encouraged by it. It’s right where I’m at. And honestly, this encourages me to set clearer boundaries with my kids, because at times I just feel like a maid service. 😉 And with boundaries comes freedom.
    I love how God uses your gifts to strengthen others. Love you friend.

  2. I don’t wish for the mud but would love the pond!

  3. SOOO needed this on this Monday… with dust and straw coming in the newly cleaned house, and slime all over my counter. Perspective changed. Thank you.

  4. I LOVE this! Truthfully, we live in town and my kids don’t really bring stuff in but this post made me wonder if I’ve stopped them from doing so…At this point, I’m really not sure, but I do know that there are a lot of messes around here in this homeschool house. And I realize that I would love having the pond, too, even with the messes.
    Rosanna@ExtraordinaryEverydayMom’s latest post: Why Spending Quality Time with your kids doesn’t have to be complicated

  5. Omg THIS! This is my every day, and as much as I love it I’m not gonna lie – there are days when I miss my spotless, adorable studio apartment from before I had kids 😂 Today I live on a 200 acre farm with chickens, goats, horses, a pond and stream, and two kids who want to bring it all inside our tiny hundred year old house. It is wild and crazy and wonderful but I’d love to sit at the table with a cup of tea without having to rearrange a deer skeleton sometimes! This was a great read, thank you ❤️

  6. Thank you so much for this today! As the weather (hopefully) warms up, part of me is cursing it because it won’t be long before muddy feet take over the house! We start preschool this year and I’ve been nervous about to handle the “messy” side of the hands-on learning I want them to experience. I’m taking your advice to heart and will try to be brave and embrace the mess!

  7. Kari!!!!! Thank you so much for this post!!!! You are such a blessing!!! It is so easy to be distracted and distant and focus on the messes!!! But then we miss the wonderful gift God has blessed us with!!! Time with our kids as they explore!! And they are so blessed to have the time to explore too!! Would love to hear more about Nature Day! Thank you so much!!!

  8. You certainly brought back so many memories. I laugh now, but I remember crying with tiredness and frustration then all too often. I also remember saying “no” too often because of the thought of all the mess it would cause. That is a regret. At the same time, I look at the friendships my kids have with each other now (and the stories they tell on mom) and smile, knowing that it was , after all, worth the effort, mess, frustration, fun, etc.

  9. I love the idea of inspiring “responsible clean-up”. What a HUGE life skill!
    Bekki Sayler’s latest post: Create a Home and Life you Love Now

  10. This is so true! We try to have both kinds of experiments in our household. We sprout seeds on the windowsill (my experiment) and spill water and food coloring all over the kitchen table (hers). But I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

    Thank you for sharing!

  11. You are so right on with this! This was exactly the encouragement that I’ve been needing. My boys have been absolutely reveling in their first spring living in a home with a backyard –previously, we were in apartments without outdoor access. We decided to let them make a mud pit in the yard (which has now turned into a castle moat, a pool for plastic dinosaurs, etc.) and my floors are paying for it. Luckily, I’m not a perfectionistic housekeeper, but even so, the mess can be kind of overwhelming. But when I actually do the calculations (3 happy hours of outdoor play in the mud versus maybe 30 minutes of a bath and floor sweeping), outside play always wins. Thanks for encouraging me to let (some) cleanliness go for the sake of learning (and joy!).

  12. Absolutely perfect words to describe the beauty of letting them learn. We are so alike… I have read many of your posts and it’s as if you are writing MY life… except that you can say it all more eloquently. The similarities between you and I in both this post and the Aspergers post are striking. Thanks for sharing all that you write about; you are definitely inspiration for this sometimes very weary homeschooling Mama of 5.

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