Creating Mess: Inspirational ideas from ‘MESS – The manual of accidents and mistakes’ by Keri Smith

Guest Post by Erin Fullerton

Erin is a preservice teacher in primary education. After a recent week of visual arts experiecnes during her studies she began noticing differnt ways of integrating the arts into her learning and teaching. Erin has just begun tweeting at @ErinJuliet and is very much enjoying the extension of her personal learning network (PLN).

As someone who likes to be organised, the idea of mess, even in a creative way, is a little bit challenging for me, even if it looks like a lot of fun. My mum saw the book ‘Mess – The manual of accidents and mistakes’ by Keri Smith and thought it would be a great book full of inspirational ideas for a young pre-service teacher, like myself. I love to be creative and I hope to bring out that creative side of me in every aspect of my teaching.

I started reading this book and instantly fell in love.

There are so many unusual, creative and inspirational ideas shown, with ‘splatter, drip and fling’, based around Jackson Pollock, ‘a page to stick only blue things’, and ‘think of an object. Try to draw it by tearing’. I especially like ‘deface this room’ as it reminds me of being a child, when I was known for finding any available drawing implement to add my own artwork to my auntie’s lounge room walls. She did not appreciate it so much, but always knew who to call when she couldn’t find a pen!

As I got reading, I started thinking of ways I could incorporate these ideas into, not only art classes, but also maths, literature, or even science lessons. One of the great things about Keri Smith’s ideas is that they are very easy to do, and involve only a few short instructions, which is brilliant for young children.

One of the ideas that caught my eye was a wax melting experiment. For this ‘mess’, there are only 5 simple instructions:

1 – Take a couple of crayons.

2 – Scrape the crayons with a knife to create shavings. Place shavings in middle of the left-hand page.

3 – Fold the page in half.

4 – Using an iron on a low setting, go over the folded page with a few quick passes until the wax melts.

5 – Open page to reveal design.

From this, students can be taught about different textures crayons can make – the rough scratch of crayons drawing on paper, or the smooth feel of melted wax – but this could also be used as part of an ongoing science lesson on melting points for different substances. What happens if you keep heating the wax? Could it eventually disappear altogether? How? What about water? Or the juice of a fruit? What if you add something else into the mix?

This got me thinking on other creative ways to teach, what could be, otherwise mundane lessons.

Something I remember doing with my mum was a ‘craters of the moon’ cake. This incorporated maths, as you had to measure the ingredients, but also science through the different reactions substances, like baking soda and vinegar, made when mixed together. As there are also marshmallows in the mix, they would melt by the time the cake was out of the oven, which could tie into the ‘melting points’ lesson. This could lead to kids wanting to make up their own recipes and seeing the reactions some ingredients make together, or see the difference in an ingredient after it has melted into the others around it. If students did this at home, with help from their parents or an older sibling, they could have heaps of fun, write down the recipe, and also become used to working in the kitchen in their own home.

Another idea I loved was ‘writing mess’, inspired by Raymond Queneau and Oulipo. This, again, has limited instructions, but also an alternative.

1 – Write a sentence on each line.

2 – Cut out strips.

3 – Recombine sentences to create new poems.


1 – Take a paragraph from one of your favourite writers.

2 – Copy it.

3 – Cut it up.

4 – Rearrange the words.

Not only could this be a really fun way to write bizarre poems, but could also be a good way for students who don’t feel very comfortable writing, to make up new poems, or stories. There’s no right or wrong, so if the student can explain why the jumble of words written down makes sense, then what they’ve written obviously has meaning behind it. This might even lead into writing a longer story about the poem they have just made, or even drawing some pictures to illustrate what they are imagining. If the student can tell me a story relating to the poem they have just written using other people’s words, then they are showing an understanding of the text that just reading a poem straight out of the book may not do.

I love Keri Smith’s ‘Mess – The manual of accidents and mistakes’ more and more each time I read through it, and I hope that I can use as many of these ideas in my teaching as I possibly can. As well as in my every day life!

What have you been inpsired by lately? How do you turn mess into a creative process or product? What other ideas do you use to inspire working in the arts?


4 thoughts on “Creating Mess: Inspirational ideas from ‘MESS – The manual of accidents and mistakes’ by Keri Smith

  1. Narelle Lemon says:

    Thanks for your comment Sarah and glad you found the post by one of your peers usuful. The book certainly is inspirational and full of so many great ideas. Enjoy your discovery 🙂

  2. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    I used to walk through the Performing Arts Centre on the way to work. Acres of reflective black glass walls and cold silence. One day I walked in to find hundreds of moppets drawing on the walls. It was bedlam – hellishly noise with frenetic energy, laughter and sharing. An amazing transformation and a very creative mess.

    • Narelle Lemon says:

      Love it…..mess is so much fun….imagination, creativity, flow, being in the moment, exploration, experimenting…all thing that are just so beautiful in creating possibilities. Thanks for sharing Jonathan 🙂

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