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Why Tots Love to Experiment

Girl pouting

The 1-year-old has a truly scientific mind, which she uses ceaselessly to experiment with the characteristics and limits of the people and objects in her world. The simple highchair becomes her laboratory as she drops cereal bits, one by one, squealing with glee as they hit the floor. And she is no less excited than Sir Isaac Newton was when he discovered gravity because, at her level of thinking, that's exactly what she is doing.

The 1-year-old is unquenchably curious and well equipped to satisfy that curiosity. There is a veritable explosion of new skills and behaviors at this time, most of them designed to help your child test the world around her. Just for starters, a 1-year-old child is fascinated with weights, textures, tastes, and smells, and even with the new sounds objects make when they strike other objects.

And every one of those items will most certainly be put through its paces: Every block and toy car, saucepan and bar of soap is felt, hefted, smelled, mouthed, banged on the floor, and thrown. Of course, the young scientist may be less than discriminating in her choices -- your bottle of expensive perfume, the cat, and the crystal vase will be subjected to the same tests and procedures if your baby finds them within reach.

You can take advantage of your 1-year-old's fascination with physics when selecting playthings. Beautiful toys hold little attraction when other objects are available to be manipulated by the child himself. Boxes with lids and sturdy objects to put in and take out of them delight children at this age, as do toys that enable them to hammer a peg through a hole or roll a ball down a chute. Or offer an unbreakable wide-mouth bottle and a few blocks or balls that fit easily inside. Toys that can be taken apart -- stacking toys, for instance, or puzzles with oversize pieces-are also appropriate, though your child probably won't be able to put them back together yet!

It is of no concern to your 1-year-old whether the toys you give him are fancy imported ones or empty oatmeal boxes and paper cups. Consider giving up a low shelf in the kitchen (or buy a small laundry basket), and keep it filled with a changing assortment of unbreakable plastic cups and spoons, well-cleaned plastic food containers (like some margarine tubs), plastic ice cube trays, and other containers. These should be his materials to use as he pleases. Vary the supply by adding new objects occasionally and removing the things your child seems to be bored with.

One-year-olds also love to explore processes and the relationships among things and events. That's why repeatedly opening and closing doors and boxes holds such appeal. (Drawers, while also fascinating, pose a greater safety risk and should be avoided.) Be sure that the doors your child plays with have special safety catches to prevent them from closing on tiny fingers; these are inexpensive and easily found at hardware stores. And remember the drawers and cabinets that should never be accessible to children: those containing sharp implements, household cleaners, or other dangerous items. These should be securely fastened with childproof safety latches.

Books will also fascinate your little one -- largely because they too can be opened and shut. Sturdy cardboard board books or spiral-bound baby books are ideal for this use. To help her manipulate the heavy pages, punch a hole in the corner of every other page and tie a piece of yarn through each hole. This will separate the pages a little bit and make it easier for your baby to grip them.

Other processes, too-turning a light switch off and on, filling and emptying cups and bottles in the bathtub, or any exploration of cause-and-effect relationships -- will delight your young experimenter. Pop-up toys such as jack-in-the-boxes may startle your child the first few times the character leaps up, but she'll soon be thrilled with the discovery that she made it happen -- and that she can do it over and over again.

Obviously there are times when it will be inconvenient to have a young Einstein underfoot in the kitchen or a miniature Madame Curie conducting an experiment on how loudly -- and how often -- she can bang a frying pan against the floor. Within reason, give her free rein -- virtually every experience has the potential to teach your youngster something. Setting behavior limits is essential, however, and anything detrimental to her safety, to family property, or to your peace of mind should be beyond those limits.