2- to 3-Year-Olds
Let's Get Together
From about 2 to 3, you'll notice big changes in your toddler's social development. Perhaps most dramatic is the demonstration of true empathy in older toddlers. "Kids this age have a sense of loyalty," says Sanderson. "If another child gets hurt, a toddler or preschooler will pat him to make him feel better."
And at this age, a child understands the basic concept of sharing, even if he's not an expert at it quite yet. Susan Poncy, of West Palm Beach, Florida, has noticed lately that her daughter, Nadia, 2, likes to encourage her 4-year-old brother to share his toys. "She understands the principle, but once she gets his toy, she doesn't want to give it up," Poncy says.
Though they still won't have the kinds of friendships you see in elementary school-age children, older toddlers and preschoolers have the emotional and cognitive skills to show real affection for other kids and to prefer one child to another.
"They pair up with other children who share their interests. But they also choose friends with whom they have a real emotional connection," says Sanderson. And, like younger kids, they imitate each other, but on a more sophisticated level. Instead of banging on tables together, they'll put on similar dress-up clothes or have their dolls do the same silly dance.
You'll also see the duo try to find private spaces where they can share intimacy. Child development specialists call this "fort building." They'll find a small space where just the two of them can sit and play together. They also know how to make each other laugh -- and get on each other's last nerves.
While all of this sounds worlds away from the caveman-like encounters of younger kids, children in this age range still need supervision on play dates. Inevitably there will be struggles over toys, or one child will push the other's buttons a little too hard.
Consistent Supervision -- and Fun
Once your child starts getting along well with another child, set up play opportunities consistently with the other family and take turns between the two houses. It gives your child a sense of security to go to a familiar place with people he knows and trusts, so he's less likely to get frightened and act up.
Semi-organized play is also a good idea; finger painting and decorating paper with stickers are both activities young kids can do together with individual results. It's also important to keep in mind that older toddlers and preschoolers are boundless fonts of energy. If that energy isn't expelled, crankiness is bound to rear its head. A playground or indoor-gym play date where kids can chase each other around, take turns on some things (the slide), and have others all to themselves (the swings) are good ways to make play dates positive for everyone involved.
Deborah Baer is a writer in Brooklyn, New York.
Originally published in the April 2005 issue of American Baby magazine.