First and foremost if your toddler or young child isn’t playing with others, don’t panic! It’s completely okay. As parents I think we often have an idyllic idea in our minds about how play dates are going to be, with little ones playing nicely together but we need to remember that developmentally most children won’t be at that stage yet. It varies based on the child’s development, needs and personality, but in my experience usually young children start to play alongside each other from aged 2 onwards.
And playing alongside each other, isn’t the same as them playing together and taking turns at a specific game! They aren’t going to suddenly be able to play a proper game together. It just means they are in each other’s space and maybe taking part in the same activity whilst they are next to each other for short amounts of time.
The playing together at a game or activity and taking turns often comes even later. And remember everyone is unique and what matters the most is that your child is happy at a play date.
Even if you come away thinking they didn’t even interact with other children, remember they will have been watching, observing and likely learning a whole range of skills and understanding about social interaction.
How to encourage play
I’ve written a whole book full of ideas of play based activities (100 Ways Your Child Can Learn Through Play) but I always say that the best games and activities are the ones led by your child.
Follow their lead, go into their world of play and try and weave in some social skills into the activity if that’s what you’re trying to work on. This could be simple things like introducing the idea of taking turns, how the game works, interacting with others or modelling using pleases and thank yous during the game.
If you are looking for specific ideas, for toddlers and young children to give them opportunities to play alongside and with other children, imaginative play activities can be great as they often involve interaction with others.
Not all children find imaginative play easy and it’s always important to remember that play is fun by its very definition, so if they aren’t enjoying it don’t push the activity. Be led by what they enjoy instead.
One of my favourite imaginative play activities , from my book 100 Ways Your Child Can Learn Through Play , is setting up a pretend shop with the children. You just need a table and some everyday items! Let them decide what type of shop it is – it could sell fruit, toys etc. Then help the children to set up the shop, putting items on the table and choose who is going to have which role. They can then have a go at visiting the shop, choosing items and asking to buy them from wherever is playing at being the cashier. It gives children lots of opportunities to practise their social skills and speech language and communication skills through play.
Sharing toys with others
Sharing is a huge developmental stage that many young children won’t have reached yet, so I wouldn’t get too worried about it. Even adults find it hard!
My advice would be to gently weave sharing into their play, make it fun and part of everyday activities and not just something they have to do on play dates.
You could, for example, set up a little tea party with their toys together and have some giggles about sharing the pretend cake and tea between the toys. Make it fun and keep it light.
We have to remember that many young children might yet understand the concept of sharing and if when a friend comes round we are asking them to share their favourite toy, they are more than likely (and understandably) going to be upset. They may not understand that they will get it back for example and are likely not to understand the complex social reasons of why they have to do it.
An easy way (that sometimes works) to avoid these problems when you have friends coming round is to have set ‘special toys’ that it’s agreed they won’t have to share and other toys that they will. And importantly let them choose which toys are in which group.
What happens if my child is ‘shy’ on play dates?
Again, try not to worry. Self confidence in new situations takes a lot of time for many children, perhaps even more so after lockdowns. Don’t make a big deal of it, give them time to feel confident and plenty of reassurance and cuddles. If that means you spend the whole time with them on your knee at a friends house- then so what?! That may be what they need so that next time they have the confidence to play with others.