Dear Dr. Debbie,
I think I spent more time cleaning up after my toddler — and cleaning her up — than anything else today. Is it really necessary for her to make so many messes?
It’s not just smearing food all over the high chair tray (and her head), but also using the markers on her hands, finding the mud puddles when we take a walk, overdoing it with the liquid soap dispenser, making tsunamis in the bath tub, and dumping an entire canister of flour onto the floor.
My husband is more relaxed about this than I am – and less involved in the daily cleanups. He doesn’t mind her spilling his poker chips out to play with.
— One Hand on the Washcloth
Your toddler sounds about right for her stage of life.
Sensory play, sometimes more aptly called “messy play,” refers to activities that satisfy the perpetual need to explore and manipulate various textures of matter with one’s hands and body.
Promote natural messiness
This is one of those natural needs, like needing to climb, that you might as well surrender to. Keep a few old magazines around for ripping. Store plastic bottle tops in a bottom drawer in the kitchen for stacking, rolling and just rummaging through. Arrange for outdoor eating as much as possible so that cracker crumbling and liquid experiments with food and drink are less distressing for you. Dress for outdoor play in rugged materials and take advantage of second-hand clothes (for you and her) that are already grass stained. Use bath time for her to luxuriate in bubbles and warm water. Invest in bath markers or paints.
There are endless materials that could be provided, or found by her, to explore through messy play. You get bonus points by using food preparation time for parent-child mess-making. The point is to have several such activities readily available every day, and to relax a bit if she stumbles upon something on her own. (See suggestions below to prevent her from stumbling upon problematic messes.)
Limit disruptive opportunities for messes
Life with a toddler requires constant supervision, except where meticulous child-proofing has been achieved. Recognize that anything she can get her hands on, she will. Therefore, limit what is accessible. Otherwise, you need to keep close tabs on what your explorer is getting into. Coasters, for example, may appear to be awaiting adults with drinks. The wise toddler and her parents know their value as stacking toys, with accompanying clicks or clinks depending on what they’re made of. Coasters scatter nicely, too, but are fun to restack where they belong. You may have intended for a bowl of smooth stones to improve your home’s feng shui. However, this, too, can serve a (supervised) sensory delight for your toddler’s fingers and ears.
Wet messes, such as homemade play dough, “goop” (cornstarch and water) or paint, need to be enjoyed over a washable surface or outside on a nice day. Hot weather is perfect for using the garden hose in creative ways with a toddler. (Hint: If your toddler often makes a mess at the sink, invite her outside at more appropriate times to make all the water mess she wants!) A shower curtain makes a clear, but slippery, place to play over the grass or dirt if you’re trying to stay out of the mud. Add plastic containers from the kitchen for more variety to your play.
A good limit for sensory objects that have “too many” pieces to easily gather up is to have no more than two sets per room. This makes clean-up a snap, whether from scattered toys or those not-exactly-intended-as playthings but she’s-having-so-much-fun-with-it items such as Dad’s poker chips. If you’re still not clear about what should be removed from her reach, consider the danger and or cost for each object against its fun value for sensory play.
Self-control will develop as she approaches age 5. Until then, arrange your home accordingly, and be selective about where you spend time away from home with her.
Mess is an inevitable aspect to toddlerhood and — let’s face it — beyond. Think about which messes could be minimized and more quickly managed with a little consideration.
How handy are your clean-up supplies? Before you find yourself with a head-to-toe sticky child, place those wash cloths or wet wipes where they’ll be needed. Keep a broom or brush and dustpan where leaves, dirt, and or sand are likely to enter your home. To prevent tracking, get in the habit of sweeping nature back out as you remove shoes and outwear. Keep a lightweight, cordless vacuum where dry messes occur since cereal crumbs, too, can spread quickly.
Remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so use a disposable or washable table covering for messy cooking and art. And cover her with a bib, apron or pinned towel to minimize the mess to her clothes.
And relax. The benefits of messy play are enormous. At an age when she is yet challenged to understand everything you say, the physical world has much to teach her. Sensory information stimulates neural pathways more than language information at this age. She can learn to distinguish wet sand from dry sand, warm sand from cool sand, and so much more. Sensory experiences also encourage fine motor skills, strengthening muscles and increasing dexterity as she manipulates materials such as play dough or real dough. Sensory experiences can also be the basis for great conversations with your toddler, even if her input is only one and two word sentences.
Yes, the mess can be frustrating to keep up with. But with your assistance, your child can reap the benefits of this important modality of early learning.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com