My Child Spills/Dumps on Purpose — What Do I Do?

Some of the most common pushback I get when I recommend that parents allow their toddlers/preschoolers to pour their own drinks or practice dry pouring on their work shelves is: “My child spills his milk on purpose / My child just dumps the pitcher of beans all over the floor.” That’s okay! I mean, I know that it’s extremely frustrating. But it doesn’t mean you have to completely give up. Remember that every behavior expresses a need.

So let’s say you’ve shown your child how to effectively pour liquids or dry ingredients, and you KNOW your child has mastered that. BUT your child has begun making a mess with that material even though you know she can do it correctly. If your child is spilling or dumping on purpose, I see three possibilities:

Your child is testing boundaries.

Your child needs to know where she’s permitted to pour things, and she’s going to test that boundary to make sure it’s really there. “We pour milk into the cup.” If she continues pouring milk on the table, “I see that you’re all done with the milk today. Here is a towel to clean that up.”

Your child is testing cause and effect.

Your child is really interested in what happens if she pours that out on the floor. It’s a science experiment, mom! “This milk is for drinking, so you may pour it into the cup. At bath time, you can practice more pouring!” or “Let’s get a nice big tray so you can pour those beans into the tray before we put them back in the pitcher.”

Your child needs more sensory input.

Your child needs some time for some water play, or a sensory bin with lots of little pieces she can run her fingers through. Where can you provide that in an appropriate space? If that need is fulfilled somewhere else, your child will be less likely to seek it when pouring herself a drink or working with a dry pouring work.

No matter *why* your child is purposefully spilling or dumping things, this is a great opportunity for introducing some practical life skills! If your child is pouring liquids, put out a sponge transfer work so your child can learn how to soak up the liquids and put them where they belong. If your child is dumping solids, put out a sweeping work or practice with a small dustpan so your child can learn how to sweep up her mess.