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Toddler Shenanigans—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My toddler is out of control. Well, not all of the time. But it seems like as soon as I turn my back she has cleared everything off of any shelf or table she can reach.

I don’t recall our older child doing this, but maybe I’m so sleep deprived I just don’t remember. Or maybe we had less stuff.

The little one is generally joyful, so I don’t think she’s deliberately trying to ruin my day. Is there a nice way I can get her to stop this?

Playing Pick Up

Dear PPU,

With her upright mobility, a toddler is making daily discoveries about the physical world. A true scientist, she must repeat her experiments numerous times with occasional variations to enrich her knowledge. “Sweeping” a shelf is a natural temptation at this age, so rather than trying to stop a force of nature, let’s just go with it.


Have you ever had a cat? From kittenhood to adulthood cats are fascinated by knocking things down from tables and other surfaces. It’s just fun. Toddlers are likewise testing and re-testing the effect of pushing objects to the edge of a surface to satisfyingly watch them land on the floor.

The simple prevention is to limit what can be pushed off so you don’t have so much to pick up.

Heightened Access

A crawling baby who has become a toddler has access to things that she previously couldn’t get to. Your little one has risen to her feet and her reach is much higher. It’s time to move loose objects to safety on higher shelves and tables. At the same time, think about interesting objects that could be intentionally left where your toddler can reach them. Examples should be light weight – so they don’t hurt if they land on her toes, washable – because toddlers still put things in their mouths, not valuable – because things might disappear in the hands of a toddler, and durable – so that there aren’t sharp broken parts nor small pieces that could be swallowed or choked on.


The behavior you described often co-occurs with a toddler’s attraction to containers of objects. Anything full is just asking to be emptied: a bowl of fruit on the coffee table, a laundry basket on the floor, a box of file cards, a bin of kitchen gadgets, etc. Of course many toys are designed as sets of objects, so put some of these in rooms where your attention might be diverted: nesting cups, block sets, shape sorters, or get creative with play worthy items around the house: empty thread spools, plastic food containers, or measuring spoons. The important thing is to not have more than two “dump sets” in any one room. Two sets of items will be much easier to sort than 3 or more sets when you’re tidying up. In fact your older child might enjoy being timed to see how quickly the two sets can be correctly divided.


At times, a toddler will repeat a behavior just because it gains her attention. Cats, too. So try not to overreact when your darling sweeps or dumps things on the floor. Use the moment to decide if you need to do some re-arranging, or whether this is a perfectly reasonable way for your child to explore her home and entertain herself.

By the way, it’s always a good preventative strategy to give children attention before they are compelled to ask for it. Before you know it your toddler will move on to the next phase with new challenges and charms.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist  and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Read more of her Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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