Teaching your toddler to play nicely with younger children

Between the ages of two and three, children’s social skills develop in major ways. When Baby was two years old, they may have had a hard time sharing or interacting nicely with other children. But by the time they are three, they might be able to cooperate, share, and take turns. The toddler who, just months before, might have had a meltdown if a toy was taken from them, or who may have grabbed toys away from their playmates, may by three be less aggressive, playing more calmly, and even trying to solve conflicts with those playmates.

But it takes a lot to get from point A to point B, and even once you start seeing hints of this advanced behavior, it doesn’t mean Baby will always be a model citizen for sharing. One of the best ways for children in this in-between stage to learn how to better play with other children is to – and this may come as no surprise – play with other children. It will also take a lot of observation, encouragement, and coaching from you to help them develop in this direction. But what exactly can you do to help?

What’s going on developmentally?

The good news is, most toddlers at this age do get excited to see and play with other children. At age two, children often engage in what’s called parallel play. This is when two or more children play alongside each other in the same area, though they might not play together much. They may interact a little, or even mimic each other, but they’re not quite playing cooperatively. Roughhousing, grabbing, and hitting are also pretty common. At this age, toddlers are really only able to understand the world around them as it relates to their own wants and needs.

By the time Baby is three, their social skills will have improved by leaps and bounds. This means that as kiddos approach age three, they’ll start engaging in what’s called associative play. They’ll start to play with each other in loosely organized ways, consider others’ feelings, and understand basic social rules better.

As Baby works to bridge this gap, and to move in the direction of playing “nice,” or, even better, playing kindly – meaning sharing, taking turns, and not hitting or grabbing or squabbling – there is a lot you can do to help, especially when it comes to playdates with children who might not be on the exact same developmental level as them.

Model good behavior

Children learn by example, which means one of the best ways you can teach Baby is show them just how you “play nicely” with others – by sharing, taking turns, and being kind. Your little one will learn to use the behaviors they see you engage in, so demonstrating empathy and care for others’ feelings – including Baby’s feelings, even on those tough days when you’re tired and cranky – is how they can learn that that’s how they should treat others too. In fact, the way you treat them is a great model for how they should act with younger children – they are younger than you after all.

Talk it out and set clear expectations and limits

You’ll want Baby to know just what sort of behavior is okay and what sort of behavior isn’t. You might want to tell them, for example, that hitting and grabbing is not okay. Taking a toy from a playmate without asking is also not okay. When some of these big no-nos are breached, intervention from an authority figure like you can help Baby learn how not to act. This might mean redirecting aggressive action toward something more gentle. It also might mean clarifying just what sort of behaviors are a-okay, like asking nicely for a turn, and treating smaller playmates with gentleness and kindness. In time, Baby will understand what sort of behavior is expected from them.

Reflect on, acknowledge, and talk about feelings

While it’s tempting to just tell kiddos explicitly what behaviors are okay and which ones aren’t, just saying “this is right, and this is wrong,” won’t lead to improved empathy. Instead, encouraging Baby to talk about why they may have engaged in less-than-friendly behavior, and talking about how their playmates and they might have been feeling can give them the beginning of a framework for thinking about how others might feel before they grab toys away from them or lashes out.

When asking children to try and consider the consequences of their behaviors and actions, it helps to use simple, logical reasoning that they can later recreate themselves in similar situations. If Baby pulled a toy away from a smaller child, you might start by asking, “What do you think your playmate was feeling when you hit him?” or “How would you feel if a bigger kid had taken a toy away from you?” or “When you didn’t give your playmate a turn she seemed very sad.”

Reflective discussions like this will help Baby to begin to consider others’ feelings and perspectives. And it’s just as important to teach Baby to get comfortable talking about and understanding their own feelings. You can help focus them by asking questions like, “If you share that toy are you worried you won’t get it back?” These conversations are also great for labeling and acknowledging their complicated feelings. You might say, “It seemed like you were sad” or “It seemed like you were frustrated.” All of this will help to build robust empathy and foster skills Baby will be able to use in relationships as they grow.

Step in and coach as needed

When Baby plays with a peer their own age, you might be surprised by how many conflicts toddlers can resolve on their own. But when they are playing with a younger or older child, you may need to do a little more coaching. When conflicts do arise, you might remind Baby of what kind of behavior is okay and not okay, or ask them how them is feeling. You can also talk about how to handle conflicts and teach alternatives to less than preferable behavior.

If Baby says, “He hit me!” you might encourage them to go tell their playmate that they didn’t like that, that it’s not nice, and how it made them feel. And if they are the one who hit a playmate, encouraging an “I’m sorry” and talking about why they may want to apologize can go a long way.

Some playtime tips and tricks for while Baby is still learning:

  • Demonstrate exactly how sharing happens. Sharing can be a pretty abstract – and challenging – concept for little ones, so try to show just how it works in concrete terms. Physically pick up a toy and hand it to Baby and say something like, “Here, I’d like to share this babydoll with you. Now you can have a turn feeding the baby.” And if, for example, a younger playmate shows interest in the toy Baby is playing with, you might say, “Can Maria please have the car when you’re finished playing with it? I think she would like for you to share with her when you’re ready.” And don’t forget to showcase those magic words – please, may I, thank you, and, if needed, I’m sorry.
  • Encourage and demonstrate sharing, but don’t force it. Forced sharing – such as telling a child “Give your playmate that toy now” – enforces ideas like that crying helps get toys, parents are in charge of who gets what, and that they will be in constant competition with their playmates. Instead, it helps to talk about asking for and taking turns instead, and, of course, about being patient, waiting, and any difficult feelings that might arise.
  • Make sure there are plenty of toys available, so that parallel play can take place, and the kiddos can make some attempts at sharing, but if they really need to be separated or distracted, there will be plenty of toys to go around.
  • Stay close and intervene if necessary. Again, children this age won’t always succeed at their attempts at sharing and being kind, and playtime may very well involve grabbing, spats, or tears. It’s important that playtime is a learning experience where Baby can figure out how to kindly interact with others and deal with conflict. And the fact that you’re there on the sidelines to step in if you need to helps to keep everything running smoothly.

What about interacting with younger playmates?

It can, understandably, be particularly challenging when Baby is interacting with playmates who are younger than them, because even if Baby is on their best behavior, their playmates might not be. The little ones they play with might grab toys, hit, fuss, and generally – you know – act like babies. This might, of course, be tough for Baby to deal with, which might lead to less than model citizen behavior on their part. But this is a good opportunity to continue to guide your little one along as they learn more about what it means to play nicely. It’s also helpful in fostering Baby’s burgeoning sense of empathy by encouraging them to try to understand how their playmates might be feeling. Remind Baby that younger children are still learning how to play with others, and need to be treated with kindness and gentleness.

Learning to treat others with kindness is a challenging lesson to master – even some adults are still working on it, after all – but it will help Baby as they get older and has more opportunities to play and interact with others. Even if some of their early playdates end in tears, don’t give up on that playtime.

  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Child development: Know what’s ahead.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, February 24 2016. Retrieved August 17 2017. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/child-development/art-20045155?pg=1
  • “Social development in preschoolers.” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015. Retrieved August 17 2017. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/Social-Development-in-Preschoolers.aspx
  • “Social development: 2 year olds.” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015. Retrieved August 17 2017. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/Pages/Social-Development-2-Year-Olds.aspx
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