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Your Toddler's Need to Explore

You may not be thrilled when your toddler opens your closet and scatters your shoes around the bedroom, but at least he's learning something in the process. Whether he's emptying the tool drawer, your hamper, or a box of tissues, he's discovering that things that appear solid from the outside (say, your kitchen cabinets) may actually be hollow, and that there are parts (your pots and pans) to a whole. "Adults take for granted how something becomes full or empty, but to a toddler, turning a wastebasket upside down and having something come out is an exciting revelation," says Henry Shapiro, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at All Children's Hospital, in St. Petersburg, FL.

While kids should be encouraged to explore through emptying items, there are ways to minimize the mess and keep the scattering safe:

Put child locks on cabinets and doors to closets where you store poisonous items and breakables. Discard unsafe items  -- such as disposable razors, uninflated or broken balloons, egg shells, and metal lids from canned foods  -- in the garage or outside trash can rather than in a wastebasket inside your home. If you catch your child getting into something he shouldn't, distract him by saying something like "Come and look at the big blue blocks in this crate."

A toddler will be less likely to strew the contents of your pocketbook across the room if you provide him with containers, such as boxes or plastic bowls filled with objects of different sizes and shapes (wooden spools, cardboard tubes, film canisters, blocks, tennis balls, measuring cups). To avoid choking, items should be big enough to not fit through a 1 3/4-inch-diameter toilet-paper tube.

Teach that part of the "experiment" of emptying things is to put them back in their container again. When 16-month-old Max Heine, of Melbourne, FL, is finished playing with the bowls he often takes out of mom Mary's kitchen cabinet, he likes to help her nest them so they'll fit back in. "To Max, putting things away isn't a chore," she says. "It's a game."