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."
In their first year of life, children are naturally curious, and since they usually aren't walking yet, they make the most of what's in reach. As most parents can attest, mealtime provides one of the best opportunities for mess-making. Many babies will energetically fling their cereal from the bowl or run their fingers through the pureed peas. "My 6-month-old, Harlee, is always whacking the spoon out of my hand so that her cereal flies in all directions," says Sherri Markowitz of New York City.
"Little ones love doing anything that results in an interesting experience -- splashing water, playing with food, putting things in their mouth," says Acredolo. "At this age, they are also just beginning to watch and compare the consequences of their actions."
Around the 8-month mark, babies begin to crawl, enabling them to explore things they couldn't get to before. However, their exploration will be hampered by their inability to pull themselves up -- so while they may be able to tip over the trash basket, their days of knocking coasters off your coffee table or toppling books from the shelf are still a few months off.
First birthdays bring more mobility, so you may begin to notice messes spreading to different areas of your home. One-year-olds are also in the midst of developing manual dexterity, which now allows them to grab used tissues from the trash or pull clothes out of the laundry basket. "One-year-olds like to experiment, purposely looking for ways to tinker with their experiences to see how the results differ," says Acredolo. Parents of children this age often wonder why their son dumps the entire contents of his toy box when he doesn't want to play with toys, or why their daughter spills out all the crayons instead of simply choosing one. Jenny Pruette of Saline, Michigan, recalls when her 19-month-old daughter poured a whole box of cereal onto the floor. "Then," Pruette adds, "She mashed the pieces with her feet!"
So what's behind these mess-making antics? Around this time, babies begin to develop a more sophisticated memory -- a huge leap forward in their ability to learn. Children this age want to experiment with their surroundings and see what the outcomes will be. Through this trial and error, experts say, babies begin to learn basic principles about the objects in their world, becoming intrigued by the concept of cause and effect. They also start to learn that by changing their actions -- for example, dropping a ball from up high instead of down low -- they can make objects behave in different ways.
Your child's capacity to make a mess will only grow as he gets older. His hand-eye coordination steadily increases, enabling him to spot that cup of fruit punch, pick it up, and pour its contents onto your white rug.
In addition to learning about cause and effect, mess-making also makes 2-year-olds feel powerful. "Messes at this age reflect their feelings of control -- 'Look what I can do!'" says Nancy Balaban, a member of the graduate faculty at the Infant and Parent Development and Early Intervention Program at Bank Street Graduate School of Education in New York City. "They'll turn over a big box of blocks, or pull out your pots and pans just to see if they can carry them."
Two-year-olds also enjoy experimenting with their newfound independence. "As children approach their second birthday, they gain a stronger sense of themselves," says Acredolo. "Now they are interested in assessing their abilities. When 2-year-olds throw toys, kick blocks, or drip ketchup on the rug, they are often testing how strong they are, how fast they are, how clever they are, and so on."
For Shari Malyn of Newton, Massachusetts, this display of physical power became apparent in an unusual way. "When my daughter was 2, I took her to a cafe," she says. "I wasn't paying attention to her until I noticed people looking at us and laughing. Ellie was putting little containers of half-and-half in her mouth and then chomping down to make them explode! She loved watching the liquid squirt on the floor."
As many parents will attest, 2-year-olds also use messes to attract attention. They are becoming more social and like to see reactions to their new achievements. "One evening our son was mad because it was bedtime and he didn't want to go to sleep," says Lori Freeman of Edgemont, New York. "He discovered the jar of Vaseline we kept in his room, and he came downstairs covered in it from head to toe!"
Between the ages of 2 and 3, many children become captivated by crayons, paints, and clay, and their messes begin to incorporate these materials. You may start them out drawing on paper, but before you know it they have moved to the wall or the carpet. Susan Cody of Monroe, New York, recalls seeing her 2-year-old daughter appear with a black marker in hand -- only to go upstairs and find that Karen had marked up all the walls in the house.
This type of handiwork means your child is entering the world of written symbols. Experts say that children this age are starting to understand, for example, that pictures on a page stand for people or objects. They are eager to start producing their own symbols. However, children don't always have the manual control to keep their strokes on paper. Your child also may not realize that your walls and floors are not appropriate surfaces for artistic endeavors, so keep a close eye on your little Picasso for now.
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.