Joining in With Toddler Play

Penelope Leach, Ph.D., explains the best way to participate in your little one's playtime.

Introduction

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:

  • Give your toddler physical help. He is still very small and incompetent. Often he has a plan in his mind but is frustrated by his physical inabilities to carry it out. Lend him your coordinated muscles, your height and your weight, but make sure that you stop when his immediate problem is solved. He wanted you to carry the watering can to the sandbox, but did he ask you to wet the sand?
  • Offer partnership. Some games require a partner -- and usually not another toddler. He cannot play "chase" if nobody will run (slowly) after him. He cannot practice rolling and receiving a ball if nobody more skillful will play. Try, sometimes, to arrange unlimited time for these games. Many toddlers have to nag ceaselessly in order to get a grudging game from an adult and then they spend most of the ten minutes allotted to them waiting for the dread words "that's enough." You cannot play with him all day, but even if it somebody else's job to play with him a lot, do try, sometimes to seem willing, or even eager, to play yourself, and let him have the luxury of going on until he is ready to stop. He learns by continuous repetition. If ball-rolling is on today's agenda, he may need to roll a ball for 20 minutes at a time.
  • Offer casual demonstrations and suggestions. He can use any number of these provided they are not made bossily or at tactless moments. If he is playing with Ping-Pong balls and you happen to have the cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels on hand, pick up a ball and show him the interesting thing that happens if you roll it through the tube. He is free to take up the suggestion or not, just as he pleases. If he is playing with crayons and paper, show him how you can make dots instead of scribble. He may or may not want to have a try himself. But don't bustle up with the Ping-Pong ball or the crayons when he is busily engaged with his teddy. If you do, you rudely imply that what he is doing has no importance. You are interrupting him.

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  • Help the toddler to concentrate. He will probably find it hard to work for more than a few minutes at a time on anything that he finds at all difficult -- especially if it involves sitting still. That means that he will not be able to get much satisfaction out of his most advanced new activities like puzzles or sorting toys. If you will sit with him, talk, support and encourage him, he will be able to go on for longer, perhaps for long enough to get the tremendous satisfaction of completing his self-imposed task.
  • Help your child to manage with children he doesn't know well. Given plenty of opportunity, older babies and young toddlers can build real and lasting friendships with each other, but acquaintances can be difficult playmates. Your child will get great pleasure (and many new ideas) out of playing alongside other children, but unless they know each other well, be prepared to conduct the party for them both. They are not old enough to be left to "fight their own battles" or to "play fair," "take turns" or "be nice to visitors." They need protecting from each other so that neither gets hurt physically or has to watch a "friend" destroy a mysterious arrangement of blocks or break down a careful sand castle. Give them similar materials and let each do what he wished, guarded from interference. Both will play, pausing now and then to watch the other, enjoying each other's presence. If they eventually begin to talk directly to each other, rather than communicating through you, a real friendship may be in the prospect. Older children can be wonderful company for a toddler and provided they are not expected to do it all the time, playing at the younger level can be fun for the older ones. Rigid separation of age-groups -- even year-by-year groups -- is peculiar to Western societies and of questionable value, especially now that the mixed-age experience of a big family of siblings and cousins is rare.

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.

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Excerpts from Penelope Leach's, Your Baby & Child, available in bookstores nationwide, are reprinted with permission of Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright © 2002.

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