The Meaning of Mess
From coloring the walls to unrolling toilet paper, toddlers smile through the chaos they create. And why not? For them, it's all about discovery.
My son, a sweet, agreeable 18-month-old, one day morphed into an agent of destruction. I had put Patrick in his crib for a nap. An hour and a half later, I walked into his room and my jaw dropped: Dangling from every wall surface within his reach were streamerlike shreds of the adorable teddy-bear wallpaper that his dad and I had so painstakingly hung. Additional bits littered the floor like confetti. Patrick grinned and announced, "Pretty." I wanted to cry.
Fortunately, Patrick hadn't put any wallpaper in his mouth. But that's about all I was thankful for at the moment. Why, when he had a perfectly decent crib toy to play with, had he felt compelled to rip down wallpaper? And why, for the next year or so, did he seem to delight in making monumental messes wherever he went?
I knew that Patrick wasn't trying to provoke me, and experts insist that 1-year-olds can't be held responsible for the chaos they create. Toddlers' messes are the perfectly normal (and healthy) result of a combination of forces, including their skill level, limited understanding of acceptable behavior, and drive to explore.
About their first birthday, toddlers experience a burst of independence. They want to do things for themselves. But because their fine motor skills are only weakly developed, their efforts are clumsy. Putting down a cup without spilling its contents calls for a precision that most toddlers don't possess.
Even when 1-year-olds use their large motor skills, messes occur. Between the ages of 12 and 24 months, children are learning to walk, jump, climb, and master other large body movements, and they love to practice in creative, spontaneous ways. At 18 months, Hannah Miner, now 2, began rolling around in drawings she and her mother had made outdoors with sidewalk chalk. "She ends up covered in pastel colors," says her mom, Laura, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. "It's an exhilarating whole-body experience."
For small children, messes are both the starting point and the culmination of their quest for knowledge. One of the main tasks of toddlerhood is to learn the basic operating principles of the world. To do that, children have to plunge in with all five senses.
"One-year-olds can't learn about their environment by sitting down with a good book or by having a conversation," notes Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at the University of California at Davis and coauthor of Baby Minds (Bantam, 2000). "They need to feel that the texture of mashed potatoes differs from that of applesauce." Eighteen-month-old Caitlyn Rosa, of Rumford, Rhode Island, loves to stomp on crackers in the kitchen. "These sorts of activities are valuable in that they give children a real sensory surge," says Roni Leiderman, Ph.D., associate dean of the Family Center at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale.
Making the Connection
According to recent brain research, sensory experiences forge the neural pathways that stimulate brain development. These neural connections are actively formed during messy play. "It's very limiting to be tidy," says Maureen O'Brien, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and author of Watch Me Grow: I'm One (HarperCollins, 2000). A toddler who is spreading his blocks all around a room is feeling the texture, forming a pattern, and remembering his previous block experience. "There's so much to be learned through hands-on attempts," Dr. O'Brien adds. "But if a child faces too many rules, he won't make the effort."
Through their sensory experiences, toddlers are also learning firsthand about concepts such as gravity, object permanence, and cause and effect. And it's just about impossible for them to do this neatly, because they have no preconceived ideas about what items are to be used for what purpose. "For a 1-year-old, if it's fun to paint on paper, it's just as much fun to paint on the carpet," says Stefanie Powers, a child-development specialist with Zero To Three: The National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, in Washington, D.C.
The best response for parents is not to punish the child but to redirect those mess-making impulses. "No matter how frustrated you may feel, your child is excited about and proud of what she's done," says Maryellen Gusic, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, in Hershey. "Suggest a better alternative, such as 'We draw on paper, never on the couch.' "
Parents can also try to contain the chaos without curbing it. Throw a plastic sheet on the floor under your child's high chair, hand him some Jell-O, and relax. Your acceptance of messy play will help your toddler develop attitudes that will free his creative potential later on. "Frankly, it's the messy stuff that does the most good," says Anna Reyner, a registered art therapist and art-education consultant for Earlychildhood.com. "If your child sees that you're nervous about spills and cleanup, it puts a damper on his freedom and pleasure."
Happily, by the time they're 4, most kids' havoc-wreaking tendencies have abated. In the meantime, when your child leaves chaos in her wake, keep your voice calm and remind yourself that her actions are a positive reflection of her growth and development.