Your toddler wants to be near a trusted adult as he plays and will often welcome help and participation in what he does, but he does not need or want to be told what to do. His play is exploration, discovery and experiment. If adults insist on showing him what particular toys are "for," demonstrating the "right" way to do things and telling him the answers to questions he has barely formulated, they will spoil the whole process. Make sure that all the adults who regularly care for your child understand that the art of joining in a toddler's play is to let him be the playleader. Provided adult dignity will permit a subordinate role, grown-up companionship can greatly enrich his play:
All children can benefit from opportunities to experience being leader as well as follower, or baby as well as big one. When a mixed-age group finds itself together and away from the peer pressure of anyone's classmates, do encourage joint play but supervise it while everyone learns how it's done. An eight-year-old who has never played with a toddler before may let himself be "caught" three times in a game of tag, but the fourth time his natural desire to win will overcome his new awareness of this staggery small person and the game will end in tears. You can help with tactful (and congratulatory) reminders, by holding hands with the youngest children so they can keep up with the bigger ones, by taking the little ones to be spectators of alternate "rounds" so that the others can play unhindered and eventually by helping the whole group to find a fame which has natural roles for everyone so that each can play at her own level. On the beach, wave-jumping suits everyone from the ripple-splashed baby (with his hand in yours) to the breaker-jumper. At home, any variety of "mothers and fathers" to "hospitals" provides a range of roles. Don't assume that the toddler will be the baby or the patient, though; he may end up giving a bottle to a seven-year-old who is making the most of his first opportunity in years to be the baby.
Excerpts from Penelope Leach's, Your Baby & Child, available in bookstores nationwide, are reprinted with permission of Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright © 2002.