You expect that as your children grow they'll become less reliant on you. But can you grow their social skills and encourage that independence during the toddler years?
Circle of Moms member April worries that her 13-month-old doesn't enjoy interaction with others. "He just sits there by himself and plays, or just sits there watching the others play" when he's surrounded by kids his age at a childcare center. "It makes me feel worried that he will go through life with no friends," she says.
Meanwhile, Lindsay's decision to be a stay-at-home-mom weighs on her because she's worried it's impacting her 21-month-old son's ability to form friendships. "I feel like people think I am doing a bad job at getting him socialized. At the same time I don't want to rush out and enroll him in daycare once a week just because someone suggested it!"
For moms who share similar socialization concerns, rest assured. Circle of Moms members have shared the following four tips on how to approach child's play at the toddler stage.
1. Be Aware of What's Normal for Toddlers
During the toddler years, don't expect your child to have too many BFFs. "It's pretty common for children at this age to play 'next' to each other rather than 'with' each other," explains Sara, noting that in play groups 'watching' might be your toddler's way of participating.
Of the six types of play/interaction, Nikki agrees "parallel play" is typical for a 2-year-old." "This kind of play usually involves two or more children in the same area. The children may be in the same area and play with the same or similar toys, but they don't usually play together as such. Quite often, they will mimic behaviors and there may be a small amount of interaction but usually it is not cooperative," she explains. In other words, toddlers might pretend to cook together and feed their babies, but it is usually just a copied behavior.
Furthermore, toddlers have not yet developed social rules, or the ability to solve conflicts, understand empathy, etc. So parents should expect their toddlers to need more adult intervention with sharing. "At this age children are quite egocentric, 'it's mine, if I had it half an hour ago it's still mine, I might be playing with something else but if you touch that toy, it's still mine,'" Nikki says.
As children get closer to age three, they enter the "associative play" stage in which they will play together in a loosely organized way, they'll understand simple social rules, and their personalities begin to emerge. They also tend to find their place in a group, Nikki adds.
2. Take Baby Steps
Despite the lack of togetherness during play, saying "social interaction is not important before the age when children begin to play together is, in my opinion, totally off-base," Lindsay says, encouraging moms to gradually expose their toddlers to social situations. Children need to "start at the bottom and work their way up. You don't just throw a kid into a room full of other kids and expect him to play with the other kids if he's had no preparation for such a situation," she says.
Natasha's son enjoys singing songs at her local library's nursery rhyme time for under-2-year-olds. "The kids don't seem to interact so young, but you can tell they enjoy it as they all stop making noise when we all sing," she says.
Ad hoc play dates at your own home are probably the easiest and cheapest activity in which to involve your child. Plus, they encourage confidence and help your child to feel secure because "mom is around" if needed, Teresa says.
But in all honesty, you can expose your child to social situations practically every time you go out, Jenn says, noting your child will observe you interacting with others, "Let him see other kids playing together and make some play-dates with friends. Have them come over to your house, go over to theirs. It'll take time but after a bit, he will make friends," she says.
3. Demonstrate and Teach
During social activities, it's important for moms to intervene, and help their toddlers understand how they should interact with others, including when there are older or younger children, as well as disagreements, Circle of Moms members say.
"Children learn a great deal of their social behaviors from their caregivers," Nikki says. So, "When they play, you play. Show them how, do it with them. They will pick it up much quicker. Show them by demonstrating, and show them physically," Rachael advises.
Beth and Mary suggest setting up toys so that they are grouped and spaced apart in different play areas, similar to how they are arranged at preschools, so that toddlers in a playgroup have alone time and together time. "There will be crossover, but try to encourage the separation. Johnny has this now, you have that. When Johnny puts down the toy offer it to the other child," Beth says.
When there are disagreements about toys, be sure to teach children how to react, Wendy says." "[Toddlers] need to know how to react to a bad situation. I tell my daycare children when they come to me and say, 'So and so said, or hit, or won't play with me,' I say, 'You go and tell them you do not like that and it is not very nice,'" she says. "Teach the child to defend themselves, and we all know that is how they will get respect from others and be able to socially play in big groups … Also teach your child to respect others, as well as yourself. Use magic words like please, thank you, may I, and most of all, I am sorry."
4. Know Your Child
Ultimately, there are lots of ways to affect social interaction, says Amie, and every child is different. So watch what your toddler has fun at instead of pushing him too soon and making him or her feel insecure and shy, adds Teresa. "For instance, if [your child] enjoys nursery [school] then encourage him to go, but if he enjoys play dates at home more, then increase this until he is confident enough not to have you there."
As Amanda notes, it's important to keep at it. "The better they are at social skills such as sharing, group entry skills, etc., the better off they will be the rest of their life."
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