Helping Toddlers Play Cooperatively

From refusing to share toys to making hurtful comments, it’s important to teach children the importance of playing cooperatively and getting along with others. Teaching these skills early on in toddlerhood can help your child during a time when they are striving for independence and testing their limits.

Toddlers can sometimes fight or become physical out of frustration or anger when things do not go their way. It’s their way of communicating. Young children need to be shown how to play cooperatively with others, take turns, and problem-solve in healthy ways.

Before they play with others, toddlers play next to or near each other. When they are in the same space, toddlers can slyly watch each other and eventually will copy each other and interact minimally. You might see one take a toy from another, and in that case, you can calmly model taking turns. This is the first step in learning to play with others.

The next  step is establishing some rules for playing with others. This will help them feel safe and secure, and begin to instill a sense that the world can be fair, and there is plenty for everyone.  Decide on two or three simple rules for playing with friends and discuss them with your child. Ideally, the rules should tell your child what to do rather than what not to do. This could include:

  • Be gentle.
  • Take turns.
  • Keep your hands and feet to yourself.
  • Use your polite words, like “please, and thank you.” 

Remember to make the rules short and easy to remember.

It’s also important to give young kids the opportunity to practice these rules and playing skills with you in a supportive, safe environment. Start by playing these games with your child to show them how to take turns. Activities that promote sharing, cooperation, and taking turns are great for building healthy play skills. Ideas include:

  • Kicking the ball back and forth
  • Hide and seek
  • Age-appropriate board games that involve taking turns for those over 3 years old
  • Building with blocks (first you put on a block, then me)

Encourage desirable behavior

When you see your child playing cooperatively with a friend, sibling, or even yourself, give them praise: “I’m noticing the two of you building the train tracks together. You are playing very gently with your little brother, Dillon. You can be proud of yourselves for playing so well together!” Talk to the kids and ask questions about what they are doing: “You two are building a great castle there, how many towers will it have?”

At first, it can be helpful to step in and help children solve problems before any fighting occurs. When possible, keep an eye on your child while they play but try not to hover over them. If you notice that your child is having a hard time sharing or taking turns, you can help by giving your child some words to use: “Issac, it sounds like you want to play with the truck now. You could say to your friend, “I would like a turn with the truck. Can you please give it to me?”  Or you may need to help decide who can play with a toy first: “Girls, you can both play with these toys by taking turns. Who is going to have the first turn?” Let each child go first at different times. Offering play ideas for the child waiting their turn can also help in these moments. “Sally, while you wait for the red shovel, you can choose to play with the sand sifter or green shovel.”

Once you’ve supported the kids to play together within the rules, try stepping back. You may be surprised!

Manage fighting when you see it

Act quickly when you see children fighting with each other over a toy or arguing. Step in and be clear and firm in your tone but not angry. Remember, your child is not purposefully misbehaving. You can use these moments to teach your child about feelings and healthy ways to express their anger or frustration.

When we can identify and name our feelings, our mind can calm. When you acknowledge how they are feeling, they will feel heard and seen. After they feel heard, they can move to the thinking part of their brain to problem solve. Soon you will hear them taking turns on their own, and then you will see interactive play: they will start listening to each other’s ideas and negotiating how the play will unfold. You may need to step in from time to time, especially when feelings become heated. Remember, it takes time to learn the life skills of cooperation and getting along together, and they learn these skills through relationships developed in play.

This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis, and Lynne Grilley. 

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