Why Toddlers Make Messes

Whether they're unrolling toilet paper or splattering food on the walls, little kids explore their world one disaster at a time. Learn how to control the chaos.

  • Kaysh Shinn

    Maximum Mayhem in Minimum Time

    Trying to keep your house neat when you have a toddler can seem like a lost cause: The minute you put away a toy or mop up a spill, another magically appears. Your child's messiness can get so bad, in fact, you might think she's purposely trying to drive you crazy. But 1-year-olds are simply discovering the world the only way they know how: by delving into their surroundings with gusto -- and that produces a lot of cleanup for Mom and Dad. Combine this curiosity with the desire to be independent (and a lack of fully developed manual skills), and you can count on lots of mishaps. While messy play is beneficial, it doesn't mean you should let your kid run wild. Check out four common toddler disasters, and learn how to set limits without stifling her development.

  • Aimee Herring

    Unrolling Toilet Paper

    Toddlers get a kick out of spinning the roll as fast as possible and watching the paper come undone. Rolling it back up is a pain for you, but it may help to know that this messy activity requires a pushing and throwing motion that builds your kid's fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

    Limit the Mess: Let your child have her own toilet-paper roll in a different color or pattern, and keep it half full (less to rewind). Make it clear that this is hers to play with and that the others are off-limits, says Rahil Briggs, Psy.D., a toddler psychologist and director of Healthy steps at Montefiore Medical Center, in new York City. You'll still have to help her roll it back up, but it's better than a surprise attack in the bathroom. A good alternative is to have her play with balls instead. Pushing, throwing, and rolling them will develop the same skills (minus the mess).

  • Michael Brian

    Drawing on Walls

    Sure, giving your toddler crayons is a disaster waiting to happen, but it's important to let him be creative and scribble when he wants. Drawing boosts hand dexterity, which will help your child learn to write later on.

    Limit the Mess: Give your kid a large sheet of butcher paper. With a big canvas, he'll be less likely to doodle on the walls. But if he does, tell him that it's not okay. "Use a firm tone and say, 'I know you like to draw, but you can only do it on paper,' " says Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., Parents advisor and coauthor of Baby Minds. Then, involve him in the cleanup, even it's just holding the paper towels while you wipe off the marks. This will help him understand that there are consequences to his actions.

  • Fancy Photography/Veer

    Playing With Food

    You can expect your kid to be especially hands-on when she's exploring the different textures, colors, and flavors of foods. "Toddlers need to feel the Jell-O slip through their fingers to learn about it," says Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., Parents advisor and coauthor of Baby Minds. "They're also curious about cause and effect at this age." If they drop food on the ground, will it roll, splatter, or make a loud noise?

    Limit the Mess: Place a large wipeable mat underneath the high chair so you're not worried about her messy eating. If you jump up to clean every time she spills or drops, it will make you nuts--and tempt your toddler to play a game of "Let's see how many times Mom will pick up my cup!" But be sure you know when enough is enough. "If she begins to throw more food than she's eating, it's time to end the meal," Dr. Acredolo, says.

  • BananaStock/ Jupiter

    Emptying Your Cupboards

    Pots, pans, and cooking utensils are fun toys for your kid -- and they're also great developmental tools. Placing containers inside each other improves dexterity and spatial awareness, while banging on pots builds hand-eye coordination.

    Limit the Mess: Keep one kitchen cabinet filled with safe cookware your child can play with, and babyproof the rest with latches. Remember to fill the special cupboard with items you seldom use so you don't have to wash them frequently.

  • Fancy Photography/Veer

    Chore Cheat Sheet

    It's important to teach your child that messes and cleanups go hand in hand. These simple tasks will introduce him to the concept of responsibility while developing crucial skills.

    Wiping Up Messes: Give him his own paper towel to help with spills.

    Lesson Learned: There are consequences to actions -- plus, the wiping motion improves fine motor abilities.

    Watering Flowers: Buy mini watering can that's hers only.

    Lesson Learned: How to hold a can upright and to tip it gently to pour--both of which build motor skills.

    Using the Hamper: At night, have your kid put his dirty clothes in the laundry bin.

    Lesson Learned: That everything has a place and that he should put his stuff away neatly.

    Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Parents magazine.