At 15 months, Janani Bhagat already has a pretty active social life. "Our apartment building has a playroom, and whenever Janani goes in, she recognizes her favorite friends, calls out their names, and runs over to them," says her mom, Bhuvana, who lives in New York City. These first friendships may seem simple to you, but they're important to your 1-year-old's development. "There's so much toddlers can learn by watching other kids, from becoming more independent to increasing 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 for your child to practice. Get started with these smart steps.
Most parents don't know what to make of parallel play. You've seen it: Your toddler does his own thing while sitting next to another child who's doing something else. It's completely normal, and you shouldn't push your kid to interact. Instead, let him play quietly for a bit, and eventually he'll start checking out what his friend is up to. "Kids 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 him by stacking blocks the same way." This is a sign your child is becoming more social and building skills that lead to friendships.
Toddlers aren't going to stroll over to a strange child in the park and say, "Wanna play?" So it's up to you to set the stage for them. Arrange playdates with no more than four kids at a time. "Your toddler probably feels more comfortable socializing with a couple of familiar children she sees regularly," says Donna Wittmer, Ph.d., author of Focusing on Peers: The Importance of Relationships in the Early Years. She's also more likely to interact in a meaningful way -- playing peekaboo or sharing a toy -- with kids she sees often. Plus, the repetition will help her to boost recognition skills and learn how to sustain relationships.
Avoid scheduling a playdate less than two hours before a nap, and keep the session around 30 minutes to an hour. For anything longer than that, 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 needs some Mommy time. "Your toddler is still very attached to you, so he may need to briefly check in and emotionally refuel," says Donna Wittmer, Ph.d., author of Focusing on Peers: The Importance of Relationships in the Early Years.
If you know your child has a favorite doll, leave it at home or put it away when a friend is over. Some toys shouldn't be shared, and it's okay 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 are just learning that when a child takes their toy, they'll get it back. If she does give her plaything to a friend, make sure you point out how happy it made him. And stick to toys and activities (balls, blocks, drawing, music) that don't require solo play.
First friendships are a good way to introduce your kid to empathy and other positive values. For example, if he grabs another child'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 early playdates do require lots of supervision, it's also important to wait on the sidelines. "The trick is to be observant but not to intervene too quickly," says Deborah Lowe Vandell, Ph.D., chair of the department of education at the University of California, Irvine. If you hang back for a bit, your child will have a chance to learn how to navigate social situations on his own and discover what's acceptable behavior with his friends.
Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Parents magazine.