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Embracing Your Child’s Messes

Embracing Your Child’s Messes

By Jennifer Chung,

Before we had kids, our homes were clutter free and everything had its proper place.  For many of us, those days are just a distant memory as we step over toys as if navigating a mine field in our living rooms.  As toddlerhood approaches our children’s curiosity and imagination become active and all of a sudden we find forts and tunnels erected from blankets and pieces of furniture.  Childhood is filled with exploring and trying new things, but that often leaves parents picking up messes.  Understanding how kids experience their world can help reduce the frustration of constantly cleaning up spills and clutter.

Part of growing up is learning how things work.  As a result kids drop things like cups, utensils or their dinner to see what will happen.  They tear up Kleenex or paper to see how it sounds and feels.  Toddlers may even try to rub food on the walls to see if it will stay on the wall or fall to the floor.  It’s a natural part of development, and, yes, this phase will pass.  As frustrating as it may be, it is a great sign that your child is growing and developing a hunger for learning. He is discovering theories like gravity, cause and effect, and spatial relationships.  He may also explore textures by running his fingers or hands over everything you just cleaned which may test your patience.  Bear in mind that this is his way of setting up science experiments.

If at all possible, try to channel his curiosity by having him help with chores or set up projects like:

  • Folding laundry.  Dropping folded socks into the laundry basket or drawer will help him make some of the same discoveries without making any new messes.
  • Setting the table. Setting the table by taking spoons and napkins from the kitchen and placing them on the table before meals will help him work with spatial relationships.  He can even help put utensils in the silverware rack in the dishwasher.
  • Learn about gravity. Magnetic letters and numbers on the refrigerator are useful for teaching sounds and counting as well as how magnets work.  Easels and finger paints and allow him to experiment with how things stick to the wall with minimal cleanup.
  • Figuring out shapes.  Draw shapes on a sheet of butcher paper and cut out shapes from construction paper and have him stick the shape in the appropriate outline with tape.

Kids want to know how things work.  For your own sense of sanity, you can set up controlled science experiments like:

  • Use shower paints and allow the kids to explore their creativity by painting on the shower walls.  It allows them the opportunity to explore how things stay on the wall, mixing colors, making shapes and it all washes down the drain.
  • Ask questions like, “Why does the spoon drop to the floor when you drop it?”  Take several different items and test the theory of gravity like a book, a feather, and a ball of socks.
  • Use everyday activities as teachable moments.  Show them how the sprayer in the kitchen sink washes away food on a plate and explain that is how the dishwasher makes dishes clean when it is running.

Working with kids to help them discover how things work and explaining the principle behind the action will help them learn how to apply science to real life.  Encourage them to explore their surroundings and help them find solutions to the things that puzzle them.  Take ques from them and guide them accordingly. Keep instruction open ended, kids with a lot of instruction tend to have a dampened curiosity and won’t look for other ways to use a toy or instrument.

Adapting a new strategy for playtime may be just what the doctor ordered.  Providing a learning rich environment that fosters the natural desire for learning and exploration will help parents reclaim some order to chaos while nurturing creative and inquisitive minds.


About Jennifer Chung & Kinsights:
Jennifer Chung is a parenting expert and co-founder of part parenting community, part online health record. Kinsights provides parents with a safe place to seek answers to their questions while also helping them track their child’s health information. Organize your child’s growth and developmental milestones, immunizations, medications, allergies, and more.  Connect with Kinsights at to learn more and sign-up! You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter (@kinsights).