Like McNeill, many moms learn the hard way that babies love to get their hands on goopy stuff, then spread it far and wide. "They can start as early as six months, as soon as they start handling things like table foods," says Mary Zurn, Ph.D., vice president of education and professional development at Primrose Schools, a private education provider in Acworth, GA. "It's like they're scientists, saying, 'Hmm, oatmeal feels nice on my head! Would it feel good on my toes?'" she says.
Still, you don't have to let your child smear her breakfast (or, blech, the contents of her diaper) for the sake of hands-on learning. "Say, 'That's not what we do with that,'" Zurn recommends. Then provide sensible smearing opportunities. Put mushy stuff (say, play clay or lotion) in a sealed zipper-lock bag, and supervise her while she smooshes it around the inside. It's just as fun for her and a lot less mess -- and stress -- for you.