Teaching children to play nicely together

Whether it’s siblings, cousins, or just-met friends on the playground, children don’t always know how to play nicely together. The word “nice” can make it sound like playing well or badly together is related to personality, and in some ways it can be, but for toddlers as young as Baby, playing together can go well or badly based on nothing more than social skills. And just like any other kind of skill, social skills can and should be taught. Social skills also need to be practiced before they can be mastered, even if practice can lead to a few less-fun play dates before your little one really starts to get the hang of their new skill.

What kind of socializing can toddlers do at this age? 

Between the ages of two and three, your toddler may be ready to start transitioning from parallel play into more cooperative play with other children, sometimes called associative play. Parallel play can look like children playing near each other without playing with each other, but parallel play is an important stage where young children start to watch each other, and to even imitate each other, as they play near each other.

Toddlers in the parallel play phase are learning from each other, and when they’re ready to start transitioning into more cooperative play, they’ll start to notice each other more and more, and then start to interact more – this may start as simply as passing a toy. Over the next few years, different factors like the scope of their social life and the shape of their personality will have an impact on the speed at which they transition from parallel to cooperative play, until they are playing like it’s their job. Which, to be fair, it is.

How can I help my toddler work on playing nicely with others? 

When conflict strikes, many parents and childcare centers find it helpful to do more than just talk to toddlers about using their words to express their feelings. Words are important, but words can also come impulsively and in anger. One strategy asks toddlers to stop, physically retreat a little by crossing their arms, and then name their emotions. This can help build the beginnings of self-control, as well as helping them start to recognize their emotions and work through them in peaceful ways.

More generally, outside the heat of the moment, certain habits can help to prepare toddlers to play nicely together, even before they’re ready to start trying out cooperative play. You and other adults in your child’s life can help them start to work on the kinds of skills that won’t feel like skills – empathy, for example, or politeness. Talking to your toddler about the way they feel, the way other people feel, and why it’s important to help other people can have a huge impact on their mind. Modeling kindness to others can make a big difference, but so can talking about what you’re doing. Explaining to them that, “we’re holding the door for the man because he’s carrying all those big boxes,” can make more of an impact than just holding the door on its own might.

What if it’s other children who aren’t being nice to my child?

If your child plays politely, but the children and toddlers they’re on playdates with haven’t quite figured out how to play nicely back, there are a few different things to keep in mind. First, as always, it’s your responsibility to make sure your child is in a safe environment. Secondly, though, it’s during these years that they first start to figure out how to deal with disagreements and differences of opinion. It’s easy to get more invested in toddler-squabbles than you ever thought an adult should, when it’s your toddler who’s involved, but letting children work out conflicts for themselves, when they can do so safely, can be an important part of growing up.

You also teach them by stepping in when things get out of hand, though – stepping in can teach children when to set limits, and can help them trust in their own safety.

What else will my toddler learn from playing with other children?

Social skills are important because, as a person, your child will need to get to know and get along with other people of all different kinds as they grow, but it also goes further than that. The little skills that go into the broader category of social skills, like impulse control, the ability to wait, the ability to listen, and the ability to stick with something they said may start out small, like following the same rules in a game, but they grow into something bigger. That something bigger may be playing on a sports team, working in groups in school or at a job, or even just being a cooperative part of their family as they grow.

There may be a few bumps in the road as your little one starts to work out how to spend time with their peers, but the things they learn from it are going to be valuable to them for the rest of their life.

  • Deb McClellan. “Help Your Child to ‘Play Nice.’” University of Illinois Extension. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2016. Web.
  • Michaelene M. Ostorsky, Hedda Meaden. “Helping Children Play and Learn Together.” National Association for the Education of Young Children. National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2016. Web.
  • Sue Shellenbarger. “Playing Nice: Teachers Learn to Help Kids Behave in School.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, April 8 2009. Web.
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