The Dirty Truth About Toddlers

Young kids love to make big messes -- and that's a good thing.

Baby with finger paint Alexandra Grablewski

Just when you're celebrating your toddler's increasing mobility, it hits you: Now she can reach almost anything. She shreds the tissues, dumps out the dog's water bowl, and is inevitably covered in peas by the end of dinner. But don't be so quick to try to control the chaos -- it may be exactly what she needs right now. "Little kids learn to understand the world from what they see, touch, and taste. They're used to touching solid things, so sticky or messy stuff gives them something new to explore," says Anatoly Belilovsky, M.D., a pediatrician in Brooklyn, New York. In other words, while she's playing with her Jell-O, your little one is discovering that it's completely different from a block of wood, working on her fine motor skills, and learning how hard she can squeeze it before it squishes all over. Fortunately, there's no age cap on getting dirty, so feel free to join your toddler in her explorations. Find out what she's learning when she makes a big mess -- and how you can capitalize on her curiosity.

    Food Fling

    Bless that mess: The traditional first-birthday event where your 1-year-old grabs fistfuls of cake is more than just a cute photo op, says child-development expert Susan Cooper, of Orange, California -- it's also a milestone transition. During the first year, everything he can grab will immediately go into his mouth to be explored. But around the 1-year mark, kids realize they can make discoveries using their hands instead. "From that point forward, it's all about what they can touch and feel with their fingertips," Cooper says.

    Chances are your toddler won't start playing with dinner until after he's munched a bit. "Kids play with their food when they're not hungry anymore and are getting bored," says Dr. Belilovsky. But there's a second reason, he says. "Playing with food gets them thinking about objects in different ways." They realize that they not only can eat this but that they can smash it all over the place too. It's the beginning of seeing things from a broader perspective -- recognizing that there's more than one way to discover and problem-solve.

    Join in: Let your toddler "help" with food prep before meals. "Egg salad is a great place to start," suggests Cooper, who has written a cookbook, Cooking by the Handful. "Give him a bowl with chopped eggs and mayonnaise, and let him mix it together with his freshly washed hands. A 2-year-old can even pile it on bread." Squeamish about the mess factor? Place the ingredients in a plastic bag and let him mash it around from the outside. Another idea: Put instant pudding mix and milk in a zipper bag (double it up to be safe) and let him squish it until it's pudding.

      Mud Puddle

      Bless that mess: Being outside means toddlers are allowed to do stuff that's often restricted indoors -- namely, getting covered in dirt from head to toe. In warm weather, it's also a chance for kids to do some whole-body investigation. "They can use their feet to check out different sensations and textures," says Jodi Kelley, an early-education teacher and associate director for Heritage Community Initiatives, in Braddock, Pennsylvania (it's a completely different feeling standing barefoot on the carpet than on cool grass or oozing mud). Plus, digging in dirt and splashing water give toddlers' gross motor skills a workout.

      Join in: "Pour a few bucketfuls of sand or dirt into an empty kiddie pool for your child to touch and explore," says Kelley. "Or, you can also dump in beans, rice, flour, or cooked noodles." Don't skip the puddles, either. Let her give them a stomp to see just how high the water flies; then let her see what happens when you give it a try. At this time of year, you can help her plow through a pile of leaves and then throw them up overhead to watch the wind chase them away. And in the spring, give her a little shovel to chop up the dirt.

        Water Works

        Bless that mess: Well-supervised water play can open up new learning opportunities for your toddler, notes Kelley. "For example, your child is learning science and math when he pours the contents of a small container into a bigger one and discovers that it takes several dumps to fill it up." Splash time also gives kids a chance to observe that some things float on top of the water while others sink. In addition, it provides a great opportunity to strengthen your child's fine motor skills -- when he's learning how to control the flow of water between two cups, for instance.

        Join in: Don't limit water play to the bathtub; fill the sink and let your kid experiment there too. Give him measuring cups and spoons, a sponge, and both toys that float and toys that sink. You can even add a couple of drops of food coloring to the water or, better still, give him two different colors of water -- and let him see what happens when he mixes them. And don't forget about water in its other forms: "Try filling a bin with shaved ice or snow," suggests Kelley. "Kids are amazed when they realize they can melt it with their own hands."

          Art Time

          Bless that mess: All artists will tell you their work is a reflection of themselves -- and toddlers are no different. "The great thing about finger-painting or scribbling with sidewalk chalk is that they build self-esteem," says Tracey Frost Rensky, a child-development expert and cofounder of Citibabes, a family recreational club in New York City. "There's no wrong way to do it." Getting creative with another favorite standby, Play-Doh, provides more than just colorful fun as well. (Just make sure you're carefully supervising, since it's meant for kids over age 3.) "Toddlers can get a huge sense of accomplishment from working with something that's malleable," says Dr. Belilovsky. Just changing the clay from a block into a fist-squashed object is a huge confidence booster. "Little kids see the shift before their eyes, and they realize that something in the world is different just because of them," Dr. Belilovsky says.

          Join in: Your child probably can't express herself with words at this age, but she is listening closely. So talk about the art experience while she's working, using lots of descriptive words to discuss colors, shapes, or the way something feels, says Cooper. "You'll be building up her vocabulary for when she really starts talking." And don't just limit her to "traditional" artwork: Put a drop of food coloring in vanilla pudding and let her paint an edible picture, or pile up a bunch of foamy soap bubbles in the bath to create a fleeting sculpture for her to marvel at (and then poke away). Give her different things to use as brushes -- like scraps of fabric or a sponge -- or do something completely avant-garde: "Strip her down to her diaper, dip her feet in finger-paint, and let her walk or slide over big sheets of paper," says Kelley. If nothing else, it'll be an adorably messy sight to see.

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            Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Parents magazine.