Early friendships may seem trivial to you, but they're important to your child's development. "There's so much toddlers can learn just by watching other kids, from becoming more independent to sharpening their language skills," says Jen Meyers, coauthor of Raising Your Child: The Complete Illustrated Guide. Still, you'll need to provide the right opportunities and environment to help your child practice. Get started with these smart steps.
Go With the Flow
Most parents don't know what to make of parallel play. You've seen it: Your toddler does her own thing while sitting next to another child who's doing something else. It's normal, and you shouldn't push your child to interact. Eventually she'll check out what her friend is up to. "Children move from parallel play to parallel-aware play," says Donna Wittmer, Ph.D., author of Focusing on Peers: The Importance of Relationships in the Early Years. "They'll look over at their buddy, smile, and even imitate her by stacking blocks the same way." This is a sign that your child is becoming more social and building the skills that lead to friendships.
Keep It Simple
A toddler isn't going to stroll over to an unfamiliar child in the park and say, "Wanna play?" So it's up to you to promote social opportunities. Try to arrange playdates with no more than four kids at a time. "Your toddler feels most comfortable around a couple of familiar children he sees regularly," says Dr. Wittmer. He's also more likely to share his toys willingly and to interact with kids whom he plays with often.
Ensure that your child and a friend stay engaged and safe by prepping your home in advance of their get-together. Start by turning the TV and computer off. Conduct a safety check from your child's eye level. Double-check that you've locked up poisons, stashed breakable objects, hidden cords, and covered outlets. Also have a snack ready. "When toddlers hit a rough spot in a playdate, having a snack can be soothing and get them recharged to play again," says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., author of What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents' Attention Without Hitting Your Sister. Also ask the other child's mom about food allergies beforehand.
Time It Right
Avoid scheduling a playdate less than two hours before a nap, and limit it to 30 minutes to an hour. Any longer than that and your kid will probably get tired or lose interest in his friends, which can lead to a meltdown. If you notice that he's starting to get upset, pull him aside and figure out whether he's sleepy, thirsty, or just needs some Mommy time. "Your toddler is still very attached to you, so he may need to check in and emotionally refuel," says Dr. Wittmer.
Pick Toys Carefully
If you know your child has a favorite doll, put it away when a friend is over. Some toys shouldn't be shared, and it's certainly fine for a lovey to be off-limits. Even though toddlers are capable of being kind to their peers, they have a hard time grasping the concept of sharing: They're just learning that when a child uses their toy, they'll get it back. If your toddler willingly gives her plaything to a friend, make sure you point out how happy it made him. And stick to activities (drawing, music, balls, blocks) that don't require solo play.
Find Teachable Moments
First friendships are a good way to introduce your child to empathy and other positive values. For example, if he grabs another kid's toy, explain why his friend is upset. Say, "Jack is sad that you took his truck. It would make him feel better if you give it back." Labeling emotions also helps with language and social development. While toddler playdates require supervision, you shouldn't intervene too quickly. If you hang back for a bit, your child will learn how to navigate social situations on his own and figure out what is acceptable behavior with his friends.
Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Parents magazine.