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Bring on the Mess!

Your 1-year-old dumps the contents of your purse onto the couch. Two minutes later, he pulls everything out of a kitchen cabinet, then turns your cup of pencils upside down. Is he trying to drive you crazy? Or does he just like making a mess?

Kids between 12 and 18 months love to empty things because they've just discovered they can, and they're experimenting with that ability, says Forrest Curt Bennett, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at the University of Washington, in Seattle. They now have the motor skills for picking up and overturning something, or pulling stuff out of a cupboard.

This phase can be a pain for you, but try not to discourage his desire to get to the bottom of things, since he's learning that a seemingly solid object, like a bucket, can be "made" of smaller pieces, like blocks. Instead:

  • Provide opportunities for him to do his thing  -- stock one ground-level cupboard with child-safe pots, pans, and plastic bowls; set out a box filled with fabric scraps; give him an old purse filled with such items as a comb, pretend keys, and a small book.

  • Offer harder tasks, such as liberating a Cheerio from a plastic bottle, once he's mastered the basic dump and sort. And talk to him about what he's doing  -- this is a great time to emphasize words like "in," "out," "full," and "empty."

  • Play it safe. Put latches on cupboards and drawers you don't want him getting into, keep breakables and choking hazards  -- like your button box  -- out of reach, and teach him that he's never allowed to empty a trash can. (If he's having trouble with that rule, dispose of dangerous items  -- such as razor blades and open metal cans--in an outside garbage pail.)

  • Make cleanup part of the fun. You might say, "You walk the animals over to the shelf, and I'll find them a seat," or "Let's see how many toys we can pick up before we count to 10."

By the time he's 2, tidying up will become easier: He'll be more interested in filling things than in emptying them.