Q. My 4-year-old is the messiest kid in the neighborhood. She has to touch or squish everything she sees; it can get kind of gross. Isn't she supposed to be past this stage by now?
A. It's certainly true that when it comes to hands-on exploration, toddlers are the ones who usually take the cake (which they then proceed to smear all over themselves). But it's also normal for preschoolers to like to feel their way through the world. "Children learn with all of their senses, from infancy on up," explains Charlotte Madison, Ph.D., executive director of the child-development laboratories at the University of Connecticut, in Storrs.
To keep all messes to a minimum without stifling your child's need to rub, squeeze, squirt, or smear, set up a play area that's designed just for this purpose -- the kitchen table covered with an old vinyl cloth for finger painting or clay molding, or her own little spot in the flower garden with a plastic pail and shovel. Afterward, pop her in the bathtub and let her explore the fascinating wetness of water and the slipperiness of soap!