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A New Way to Think About Your Toddler and Messy Food

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Development & Learning

If you’ve ever fed a toddler soft food, you know the outcome: food on her face, in her hair, between her fingers, all over the high chair tray, and quite a bit on her clothes and even on the floor. A mess!

But also a lesson. Babies who mush up their oatmeal and fingerpaint with the pureed squash are actually learning about non-solid objects. They are expanding their vocabularies and their notion of how the world works.

In a word, messy eaters get smarter.

It’s easy to learn about solid objects. Blocks, stuffed toys, cars and balls keep their shape and can be rotated and played with without changing. But how do children learn about squishy things? Researchers at the University of Iowa wanted to know.

So they put 70 16-month-old children in front of 14 non-solid objects, like applesauce, pudding, and soup. The children were allowed to do what they wanted with each substance, including touching it, smelling it, and eating it. After one minute, the scientists asked children to identify the same subject when it was presented in a different amount and in different shapes. This meant that children couldn’t rely on looks alone to identify the substance but had to know more about it.

This is important, as lead author Lynn Hall pointed out. “For a lot of non-solid stuff, you can’t really tell what it is just by looking at it. What matters is what it’s made of. Is that whiskey or ice tea in the glass you just grabbed? Or similarly, for children, is that baby lotion or strawberry yogurt?” Touching, tasting and smelling are the only ways to really know. Says Hall, if children have “a lot of practice touching and eating non-solid foods, then they know it’s okay to get in there and figure it out.”

Children in the study who did the most messing around with the foods in the one minute they had, were better able to identify the same foods when it was disguised. In addition, children did better when they were sitting in a high chair than when they were sitting at a regular table. The high chair spelled an exploration zone, apparently, and helped children investigate more.

What’s the take-away? Realize that when your child is making a mess with his food, he’s learning a lot about the food and what soft solids do. He’s learning how to think. Yes, he’s getting it everywhere and naturally you want some of that to go inside his tummy. But being obsessive over cleanliness in the high chair might actually inhibit learning.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.