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Why messy kids are smarter

Kids can make some serious messes — but it turns out, there could be some major benefits to spaghetti art and pudding paintings. A recent study shows that the messier a child is, the more she is learning.

Messy baby eating a meal |

When some new moms see a high chair, they imagine their child neatly enjoying meals of homemade baby food while emitting adorable coos and giggles. But when an actual baby sits in that pristine, cushy seat, it’s time to get down to business and make a serious mess. Mealtimes are notoriously chaotic when a baby is involved but moms everywhere can take solace in the fact that those colorful, sticky messes could actually be educational.

Science 101

We all know that children learn about solids and non-solids in science class, but the foundation of this knowledge can be established way before a child is old enough for school. Many parents help their young children learn to identify solid objects by allowing them to touch and feel a ball, cup, spoon or toy truck, but identifying non-solids can be a little trickier. A new study published in the journal Developmental Science shows that mealtimes are ideal for teaching about non-solid objects. When children are in a familiar setting — such as a high chair in the kitchen — and allowed to explore the wet, gooey, sloppy substances on their plate, they learn about textures, smells and colors while they are tossing, squishing and splattering whatever is in front of them.

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The research

Larissa Samuelson is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Iowa. She has done extensive research on how children learn to identify objects with words and is the main author of the aforementioned study. She and her team gave 16-month-olds many different non-solid objects (such as pudding, applesauce and soup) to explore in various settings, paying careful attention to the ways in which they manipulated the substances and learned to associate specific words with each. Researchers concluded that the more a child became familiar with a certain material, the better they were able to identify it correctly.

A foundation for language

While this research is encouraging for moms of messy kids, don’t expect your little tornado to walk away from his spaghetti sauce art with an immediately expanded vocabulary. His productive play may not seem instantly advantageous, but his experience is laying the foundation for language skills to come. “It may look like your child is playing in the high chair, throwing things on the ground — and they may be doing that, but they are getting information out of [those actions],” says Samuelson. “And, it turns out, they can use that information later. That’s what the high chair did. Playing with these foods there actually helped these children in the lab, and they learned the names better.”

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Let them play!

The big take-away from this research is that moms everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief when little Jane or Jimmy creates food and juice explosions on a daily basis. Rather than try to correct this behavior, it may be more beneficial in the long run if you just let them play, explore and create. “And, if you expose them to these things when they’re in a high chair, they do better,” says Samuelson. “They’re familiar with the setting and that helps them remember and use what they already know about non-solids.”

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