The Topless Blender
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s take on toddlers is right on: “A two-year-old is kind of like having a blender but you don’t have a top for it.”
Our hopes for order and cleanliness are challenged when young children are around, for sure. At a recent family dinner, we thought we’d placed toddler Emmy where she could do no harm. We pulled back the tablecloth, laid a drop cloth on the floor beneath her, and covered her chair with a towel.
Convinced we had “toddler-proofed” the area, we relaxed as Emmy enjoyed feeding herself bits of soft food with her increasingly-sticky hands. Then just before dinner was over, she chose to entertain us all with a game of peek-a-boo. With her mushy hands, she reached behind herself, grabbed my dining room drapes, and covered her dirty face with them.
One more trip to the dry cleaners.
During their earliest years, children learn all the time by experimenting with everything they can get their hands on, using a method they perfect early: “messing about.” Toddlers’ messes are the classroom where significant learning can occur.
The need for creative disorder extends into later childhood as well, as school children also need kinesthetic experiences in order to learn. Like life, learning is messy stuff that defies the standardization we try to impose on it. We adults are forever trying to clean kids’ messes, but sometimes we wipe the education right out of them.
Rich sensory experiences bootstrap learning for kids of all ages. The dry tedium of an iPad can’t compete with the smell of oatmeal cookies baking as part of a science lesson. A math paper doesn’t teach kids to stack, count, and classify like a pile of brightly-colored manipulative shapes . A lecture about Tchaikovsky won’t give us goose bumps like listening to the 1812 Overture. And I maintain making mud pies on a warm day builds hand strength and fine motor control like little else.
Toddlers have a lot to teach us about perfecting the practice of messing about. I for one could use a little more mess in my life. Maybe after dinner tonight I’ll initiate a game of peek-a-boo, but I might use my napkin rather than the drapes.