Why do they do that? Dump and fill.

One of my absolute FAVORITE stages of play is one that emerges somewhere between 12-24 months. Many people call it “dump and fill”, and that’s a perfect description. Basically, it’s the process by which a child fills up a container and then dumps it out, only to start filling it up almost immediately again. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but your toddler can do this for a really long time and it never gets old! Why?

Let’s take a look at what’s happening developmentally (of course!). Your child finally has control of their limbs: they’re probably walking, they can reach things, and in general they have more physical control over their environment. They can walk and hold something in their hands at the same time! Magic! And so, like any of us -- when we first discover that we have control over something, we practice exercising it!! And we practice and we practice and we practice until we know ALL the ins and outs of the thing. Until we really understand how it works. Until we have detailed knowledge of our role in the process. Until we become proficient. Most of us know Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice to become expert at something. This is the “super-charged baby” version of that. When everything is going well in child development, 10,000 hours may not be required, but some percentage of that certainly is!

Question: But why is it fun for them?

Answer: BECAUSE THEY CAN DO IT NOW! Seriously. They couldn’t before. But now they can, and so they do. It’s as simple (and as complex) as that. The complex part of it is that by practicing the activity over and over again, synapses are being formed at breakneck speed and your child is literally growing their brain. The simple part of it is that it’s satisfying to do things that we do well.

Question: Why do they have to make such a mess by dumping everything all over the place?

Answer: Because the “un-doing” is part of the experience of “doing”. “Cleaned up” can’t exist without “messy”. It’s the yin and the yang - neither can exist without the other! As adults, we know this already; and we choose “cleaned up” as a preferred state -- but only because we know a lot already about “messy” (and because our whole culture tells us that messy is bad - HGTV anyone?). Your children don’t know about messy. And they’re not going to take your word for it that it’s a bad thing (if you haven’t already noticed!). They need to experience it themselves.

Actually -- a little caveat about that last statement. Eventually, children WILL take your word for it that “messy is bad”. They’ll learn to become anxious when faced with a mess; they’ll learn to feel guilty for making a mess; and eventually, they’ll begin to fear making any kind of mess or “mistake”.

And that can be dangerous. It’s probably not the message you intend to send your child, and yet, there it is: mess is bad and we should feel bad for making a mess.

You can avoid passing on this paralyzing message to your children by accepting that the mess is just part of the gig right now. Revel in it; and watch your child as they revel in it.

And when you feel stressed out about the messiness of having a toddler (who might want to dump more than fill!), take a deep breath and remember:
You can’t have “fill” without “dump”.
Dump and fill is a stage that they WILL get through
HGTV will always be there with pretty pictures to daydream about

All my best -

PS -- Incidentally, a later version of the “dump and fill” game becomes: “build it up and knock it down” or “create and destroy”. Again, it’s about practice. It’s about control over the environment. And it’s about delight in that control and ability. See if you can enter into that delight with your child. See if you can knock over your carefully constructed tower just for the pleasure of watching it fall and so that you can build another one (and another and another).