Congratulations on your baby’s first birthday! This is a big deal! You sing “Happy Birthday” and let little Princess sink her hands into her birthday cake, while you post enough photos and videos to overload your social media account. Your baby’s first birthday is a special time; a time to reflect on how much she’s grown and changed since she first made her appearance into this world. She’s gone from a tiny helpless bundle to a frolicking, dimple-elbowed mover with a will of her own.

Your one-year old is a delight. She makes you smile, makes you laugh, and makes your day. She also makes a BIG MESS. And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

These messes are all the signs of a healthy one-year-old: your baby is becoming more mobile. She’s developing her ambulatory capabilities and is crawling, cruising, and maybe walking. While she moves, she explores her environment. And that means dumping out containers…yup, lots of that going on. Do I know your baby, or what?

If you’re nodding your, head, that’s fantastic news! It means your baby is demonstrating an important developmental play routine; container play. Container play means that the child explores her environment by manipulating objects into and out of any available containers in her environment. And yes, I mean any available containers. Your child does not differentiate between the toy bin and the trash bin, her bowl of cereal, Dad’s coffee cup, and—is that the dog food?!

When she looks up at you, it’s like she saying “Gee, Mom, what’s the big deal? A container is a container, right?”

The truth is that messes can really be frustrating. You work hard to keep your home clean and organized, and your child’s ceaseless explorations add up to a lot of extra work for you. So, just to make you feel better, here are the ways that container play is helping your child develop fundamental concepts that will be the foundation for later learning.


  1. Your child is learning about spatial relationships. This is an understanding of the way objects in the world relate to each other and ones self. Your child’s brain is doing this: A ball in a basket stays in the basket, unless it is turned upside down. I can turn the basket upside down to cause this outcome. These concepts are absolutely essential building blocks to the way your child understands the world. They help your child navigate obstacles, locate and obtain desired objects, and complete some simple adaptive tasks, like self-feeding and beginning to help get dressed. And believe it or not, they are the forerunner for later mastery of reading and math concepts.
  2. Your child is developing a sense of autonomy. This is a perception of one’s self as having control over a given skill or circumstance. Your child’s brain is doing this: When I turn the basket over, the ball comes out. I can make the ball come out. I have control over this object. Autonomy develops from small, seemingly insignificant circumstances such as removing a ball from a basket, to much more fundamental acts, like self-care, the ability to follow verbal directions, and other tasks in the child’s routine. The child’s sense of autonomy is what promotes independence, motivates her to try new things, take risks, and engage in functional behaviors.
  3. Your child is fine-tuning her hand-eye coordination. This refers to the skill set required in order execute fine motor tasks and manipulate objects. It requires practice, and container play offers that practice. Your child’s brain is saying: I need to move my hands like this to hold onto the basket. When I pull with one hand the basket tips forward. When I pull with two hands it tips forward even more! These activities allow for the repetition and practice that are necessary for developing well coordinated hand-eye skills. As your child grows she will be able to manipulate objects in increasingly complex ways, but for now, container play is laying the foundation. Developing her hand-eye coordination is the underpinning skill for self-care activities like feeding and dressing. Later, her literacy skills like turning the pages of a book, drawing, and writing will all rely on the hand-eye coordination skills she developed as a baby.


In summary, your baby is doing so much more than just making a mess. She is preparing to be a thriving toddler, preschooler, and school-age child. She is practicing fundamental skills that will later allow her to build, learn, and grow on the knowledge she has acquired. Now you know….now, go clean up that dog food.

By Chaya Glatt

Special Instructor, Kutest Kids Early Intervention