Good Clean Fun
Supporting your child's development while keeping your home in some semblance of order is a tough balancing act -- but it can be done. Babyproofing can go a long way toward keeping messes at a minimum. Try gating off rooms or spaces that you want to keep neat. Creating opportunities for cleaner creative play can also help save your sanity. Invest in a few no-fuss paint-with-water books; these have pages that release color when you brush them with water. Or try giving your toddler a treat at tubtime by placing plastic bowls, spoons, and cups in the bath. If weather permits, let your child try out her mess-making skills in your backyard. "We take our daughter to finger-paint outside," says Pruette. "When it's time to go in, we just take the hose and rinse her off."
If your little one is old enough, try to engage her in helping you clean up. Use plastic boxes and bins to gather toys and attach a photo or illustration of what goes inside. This will help her learn where different objects belong.
On the other hand, experts point out that there are plenty of children who don't like the feel of slimy finger paints or the clatter of Duplos. But even if your child doesn't like messes, you should encourage him to explore anyway. "If a child doesn't learn to make a mess, he doesn't learn to use his mind in an open-ended way," says psychologist Healy. If your little one is more comfortable in a cleaner play environment, find mess-free materials he'll enjoy and play along with him. "A parent's joyful participation may be just what a child needs to dig in," says Healy.
However if your child doesn't hesitate to smear oatmeal on the sofa, take heart. According to a recent study, 3-year-olds who actively engage in "stimulation-seeking behaviors" -- that is, who seek out and interact with people and things -- tend to perform better in school. "In this way, parents can see a child's tendency to seek out stimulation as a positive thing," says Adrian Raine, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Southern California and one of the study's authors.
As for me, I must say that Rachel's ice cream episode certainly taught her well. Now a third-grader, she eagerly plunged her face back into the stuff at her school fair -- and emerged a champ at the hands-free ice cream eating race!
Barbara Solomon is a mother of three in Scarsdale, New York.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, March 2004.