Understanding Toddler Play

Toddlers and Play

By Elizabeth Heubeck

My son was 2 years old, and so was our neighbor—instant play pals, right? Wrong. They’d see each other, on the sidewalk or the grassy knoll between our houses, and give each other no more than a passing glance.
Fast-forward a year later, and, suddenly, they share a passionate and mutual interest in one another. They search for one another in the neighborhood and at the pool. They ride their bikes together, chase one another around and generally bask in the glow of each other’s company.

What happened in that year to turn these toddlers into friends? A whole lot of social development, that’s what.
Now, as they’re exiting toddler-hood and moving on to the next phase in their lives, these two 3-year-olds have become more aware of and interested in interacting with their peers.
While there’s no magical age at which toddlers choose to engage in play with their peers, most children between the ages of 12 and 36 months do share certain experiences that prepare them for the all-important business of play.
Stephanie Powers, a child development specialist with Zero to Three, a national nonprofit organization committed to promoting the healthy development of infants and toddlers, explains that, to the untrained eye, toddlers playing side-by-side (often referred to as ‘parallel play’) don’t appear to be interacting. But in their own ways, they are. “Onlookers might not recognize the way that younger children interact as play because the nature of the interaction is more simplistic,” she says.
Handing a toy to a child, imitating the play of another child or simply watching another child is all part of toddler play.

Ready for Friends… or Not

So, when do most children advance from parallel play to more overt interaction? Just like adults, not all children are social butterflies, while others can’t get enough of their peers. Powers points to some of the factors that influence a toddler’s readiness for play pals. “Much depends on a child’s temperament: how they react to unfamiliar people, their overall activity level and ability to tolerate stimulation,” she says.
How much experience a toddler has around other children—both siblings and children from outside the family—can also play a role in his or her comfort level and interest in peers.

With so much emphasize these days on the socialization of children, some parents may wonder if there’s something wrong with the toddler who seems more interested in spending time alone than with peers. Is there a need to worry?
“I would only be concerned if there were other signs of anti-social behavior [such as] not communicating with anybody, or always immersed in their own play without an awareness of others,” Powers says, adding, “A typically developing toddler who’s more into following his or her own lead than another’s—that in and of itself wouldn’t necessarily worry me.”

Learn to Take Turns

Look around at any playground and you’re likely to find frustrated parents hovering over their toddlers in an effort to get them to share their “toy of the moment.” Why the ardent possessiveness, regardless of whose shovel it is?

Because, as Powers aptly puts it, “Toddlerhood is a time that’s really all about me.”
Moreover, toddlers live in the here and now—as in, this immediate instant.
“Cognitively, a toddler can’t understand that his or her turn is ‘later’ when he or she wants it now,” Powers explains.

Can parents do anything to foster the idea of turn-taking among their toddlers? Yes, says Powers.
“Even infants can get the concept of taking turns as they play simple ‘back and forth’ games, such as rolling the ball to Mom and Dad,” she says.

Powers also urges parents to give lots of positive reinforcement when a toddler effectively allows another person to take a turn. And rather than force a toddler to quickly relinquish a toy for which another child is clamoring, Powers suggests letting the child decide when he or she is finished with it.
“Let [your toddler] feel satisfied with the experience before making him or her give up a toy,” she says.
But, as for special toys—such as a beloved “lovey” that your child sleeps with every night—she says, “Those toys should not have to be shared with others.”
While your toddler may share a fleeting fascination with a select toy (or even a real play pal), Powers reminds us of what counts: “The fanciest toy is going to be meaningless without a caring, supportive relationship with a parent or other primary caregiver.” BC

Play Date Tips for the Toddler Set

Keep the group size small—a total of four kids is plenty.
Avoid the marathon play date. Keep the time short, an hour to an hour-and-a-half.
Be flexible: If you’ve planned some great activity, but the kids aren’t interested, let it go.
Plan a time when the kids are well-rested and fed, and feeling healthy.
Have duplicates of toys so that more than one child can have the same item at the same time.
If the play date is not at your house, be on standby in case things fall apart and you need to retrieve your toddler quickly.

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