It’s easy to feel frustrated when your toddler dumps over a bowl of snacks or pulls a row of board books off a shelf. At this age, your toddler still doesn’t have the self-control to stop themselves from dumping that bowl, even if you’ve told them not to. They don’t want to upset you; their desire to see what happens when the snacks tumble out simply overrides everything else.
The learning benefits of making a mess
Destructive play teaches your toddler about concepts like cause and effect, gravity, and physics. While it can be hard to support sometimes, it’s a powerful learning opportunity for your toddler. In fact, intentionally allowing them to take or break things apart and topple or spill things may satisfy their curiosity and make it more tolerable for you. Building towers for them to destroy, letting them dump clean laundry on the floor before folding it, and giving them chances to scoop, pour, throw, and smash can help meet their need to make big things happen and see the result.
How to support your toddler’s destructive play
Let the mess happen. Resist the urge to immediately start picking up something that your toddler knocks over. If you make the mess disappear, they may lose the chance to continue learning from their experimentation. Instead, they might conclude that you’re their clean-up crew.
Talk about what’s happening. Narrate the process and ask questions to give language and meaning to what your child is doing: “Crash! You spilled all the blocks out of that basket. That made a loud sound! What do you want to do with them now?”
Be a partner in play. Give your toddler both a wet and a dry piece of paper to rip. Talk about how the wet piece rips more easily but the dry one makes a louder noise. Or go outside to make and smash dirt piles together—the bigger, the better.
Create a “yes” space. If you have room, fill a small, designated cabinet with items your toddler can explore without a lot of adult intervention. Empty yogurt containers and a variety of child-safe loose parts—like sticks, jar lids, and fabric scraps—can lead to long stretches of filling and dumping containers.
Redirect when needed. If your toddler does get into something important, like a pile of work papers, redirect them to a safe alternative, like a basket of junk mail headed for the recycling bin.
Clean up together.When your child makes a mess, model how to clean up and put things back together. If they continue to dump out toys when you’re ready to transition to lunch, tell them calmly, “It’s clean-up time now. We can spill the toys out again after eating.” Try offering your toddler one simple thing to clean up—like putting blocks into a basket—while you clean up the rest.
Maintain clear limits. You can allow a certain amount of destructive play while still maintaining limits that teach your child socially appropriate behaviors. If they dump food on the floor, you can tell them, “Food stays on the plate or in your mouth.” Then, offer them an alternative: “Here’s a cloth you can drop.” Or, you can end mealtime and invite your toddler to drop some playthings into a container.
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