We were at an amusement park one summer afternoon when my husband and I decided to give our 18-month-old daughter her own ice cream cone. Normally we'd order a cup and hold it for her while she fed herself with a spoon, but we thought she'd like a change. What a mistake! Before we knew it, Rachel had rubbed her face in the melted mush and smeared it all over her clothes. She became so sticky that I finally let her run around in a diaper.
As I rolled up her gummy shirt and peeled off her pants, did I ever consider her escapade educational? Of course not! Yet child development experts say that I could very well regard the afternoon in that light. "Messes are the by-product of learning,' says Jane M. Healy, PhD, a psychologist in Vail, Colorado, and author of Your Child's Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning from Birth to Adolescence (Doubleday Broadway, 2004).
In fact, the stains and spills that seem to follow your little one are really just a way for her to make sense of her surroundings. "For example, by stuffing a sock into their sippy cup, children learn how things fit inside other things," says Linda Acredolo, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis and coauthor of Baby Minds: Brain-Building Games Your Baby Will Love (Bantam, 2000). "By ripping pages out of a book or pulling toilet paper off the roll, they learn what things are made of."