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A Toddler's Hidden Treasure

If you've got a 1-year-old, chances are you've got toys, food, and other "loot" buried in various nooks and crannies around the house. "Squirreling things away gives toddlers a sense of control over their environment," says Anita Landau Hurtig, Ph.D., an associate professor of pediatric psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "They like having their own little secret world."

Take 22-month-old Wyatt Omsberg, for example. When his mom, Julie, of Belgrade, ME, discovered two crackers, a Popsicle stick, and some toy cars in a drawer in one of her living room tables, she knew there was only one person who would have put them there. "Wyatt loves to stash things in concealed places," she says.

Such behavior signifies a cognitive leap, according to experts. "The child is learning that things still exist even if he can't see them," says Alan Williams, Ph.D., an associate professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Mercer University School of Medicine. As the idea takes hold, kids delight in testing out the theory by hiding things, then going back to where they put them. "It's the same kind of pleasure that babies get from playing peekaboo," says Williams.

While some toddlers hide away almost anything, others, like 21-month-old Claudette Pattison, of Seattle, are more selective. Claudette stashes decorative bathroom soaps on shelves in the living room and windowsills around the house. "I think she's intrigued by their shape and texture," says her mother, Renee.

What if a child repeatedly hides a beloved item or two, such as a favorite blankie or stuffed animal? "It may be his way of saying, 'Hands off, buddy,'" says Landau Hurtig. "The object is so special, he doesn't want anyone else getting it."