Messy Kids Learn More

Toddlers are more likely to remember what a food is called when they play with it, a new study shows.
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There are endless ways to categorize people: Are you a Stone or a Beatle? A Coke-drinker or a Pepsi-drinker? Chaos Muppet or Order Muppet? But perhaps no distinction is more polarizing than Neat versus Messy. It's the line that divided Felix and Oscar, Bert and Ernie, and an untold number of less renowned households.

By default, Team Neat gets the moral high ground: An orderly home or office provokes admiration, while a space littered with piles of laundry or stacks of paper is a source of shame. Recently, though, education research has offered a few victories for messy people. This summer, researchers at the University of Minnesota found that students in disorderly rooms "exhibited more creativity" than those who were in neat and tidy ones. The study confirmed a popular quote attributed to the most famous member of Team Messy, Albert Einstein: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” 

Another victory for the messy comes now from a recent study published in Developmental Science: It appears the benefits of messiness start at a young age. "Highchair Philosophers: The Impact of Seating Context-Development Exploration on Children's Naming Biases" found that toddlers were more likely to learn the names of foods when they played with them. Researchers Lynn K. Perry, Larissa K. Samuelson, and Joanna B. Burdinie gave 72 16-month-old children a variety of non-solid foods and told them what they were each named. A minute later, the researchers gave the toddlers the foods again. The children who touched, squeezed, and threw the foods—in other words, the kids who got messy—were more likely to identify them correctly.

"It may look like your child is playing in the high chair, throwing things on the ground," said Samuelson in a press release about the study. "But they are getting information."

The researchers also discovered that where the toddlers sat while they engaged with the food had an impact on how well they learned. The children who sat in a highchair tended to recognize the food better than the children who sat at a table. Why? Because they felt more freedom to be messy in the highchair.

"Being in a high chair makes it more likely you'll get messy, because kids know they can get messy there," said Samuelson.

The message is clear: Parents should encourage their kids to make a mess! They'll learn more that way—and grow up to populate the ranks of Team Messy.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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