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Oh boy! Getting several toddlers together for a play date can be…a learning experience. I considered investing in a really fancy whistle until I learned that there are several steps I can take to help make play dates easy, breezy for both me, my kids and their playmates.

  1. Cover the rules with your kids before the play date begins. Example: “Bobby, we are about to go to Jaden’s house to play. Let’s talk about the rules. There is no hitting, kicking or fighting while playing. And we share his toys and games. If you break any of these rules we will go straight home. Is this crystal clear?.”
  2. Once you are at the play date location, get all of the kids together and cover the rules with all of them before the play date begins. “Bobby, Jaden, Haley, Susie and Christopher…come here for a second. Today we are here to have a lot of fun. But there are also rules we need to follow while playing together. If anyone fights over a toy or game, then the toy will go to time-out. Okay? If anyone hits, kicks, bites or calls names, then that person will have to go home. Okay?” Make sure the parents hear, understand and support the rules so if their child is the one causing trouble they will take action.
  3. So, what if you are in the uncomfortable position where a child is not behaving and the parent of that child doesn’t do anything? I used to bite my tongue and not say anything and then hear weeks-on-end from my daughter about how mean and horrible “Christopher” was. Then one day my son was not playing nicely with his friend Ian and Ian’s mother very politely but sternly said, “Bodie, we don’t hit. Please stop.” And I had no problem whatsoever with Ian’s mom correcting my son. Parents don’t have eyes on the back of their head and many times we don’t see something that another parents does see. So don’t hesitate to correct another child (gently) and be open if other parents gently correct your child.
  4. Avoid junk food and sweets. I have seen a group of toddlers playing wonderfully together…until the chocolate chips cookies and juice are served. If you serve snacks at your play date, strive for carrots, fresh fruit and water over anything else. Otherwise, get ready for all heck to break loose!
  5. Ask older siblings to play safely with the little tikes. I have seen many accidental injuries from a 7-year old nailing a 3-year old with a ball as well as many toddlers hit by older kids on swing sets.
  6. Ask your playmates to take 10 minutes before they head home to help clean up. And if you are a guest at a friend’s home, offer to help clean up before you dash home.
  7. Every school and neighborhood has a handful of kids who are aggressive and physically or emotionally harm many children they play with. Don’t force your kids to play with these children – even if it’s your best friend. Identify the children who play well with your children and stick close to them. And don’t hesitate to leave a play date early if you sense your child is being bullied.

This week my granddaughters from Illinois visited my home and I had a chance to observe young sisters in action. The girls are four and six years old, which exactly matched that ages of siblings in a new study of children’s learning. Like kids in the study, my granddaughters shared information, helped each other learn new things, and acted as a learning-teaching team. See if your children do the same.

In the study, researchers sat in on 39 Canadian families for six 90-minute sessions, as children in the family interacted naturally. The kids weren’t given any sort of learning-teaching task, but simply did what kids do together. Like my granddaughters, the children in each family were ages four and six.

What the researchers saw was a whole lot of learning – far more than the lead scientist Nina Howe expected. She said she was surprised not only by how much teaching occurred of one child to another but also on the sorts of learning that was shared. Children not only taught each other how to do things, like how to make a block tower stable, but also concepts like the difference between a circle and a square or how to tell apart the days of the week.

Researchers also noticed that the teaching-learning process moved in both directions. Often the older sibling explained things to the younger child but sometimes the younger sibling did the teaching. There was a lot of sharing of knowledge and developing knowledge together.

Howe suggests that parents can capitalize on children’s willingness to learn from each other by making sure kids have lots of unstructured playtime. She says, “Give them the time and space to interact together, and have things in the home to promote teaching and learning, both toys and opportunities for kids to be together.”

Learning doesn’t always come from adults. Often learning is easier when the teacher is nearly the same age as the learner and can understand the learner’s point of view.

When kids are playing together, don’t interrupt or step in to do the teaching. It matters less that children get the right answer than that they consider the problem and come up with what seems right to them at the time.

Let your children play and figure things out. Listen in, if you like, but let the learning happen on its own.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

It’s true that over half the American presidents and a majority of Nobel prize winners were first-born children. This might make you think that there’s something special about the juju that makes up that first embryo and that the raw material of follow-up siblings is just not so good. As a second-born child myself, I beg to differ.

What is different for first-borns is the situation into which they’re born. Just a comparison of first-born and later-born baby scrapbooks will tell you: first-borns are the center of attention and later-borns not so much. First-borns have only adults to talk to. First-borns are fussed over and worried about. Everything first-borns do involves some major decision. It’s hard not to think you’re special with all that special attention. From first word to first day at school to first day of college, first-borns are the center of their parents’ world.

Later-borns benefit from the experience their parents gained while practicing on Kid #1. They often live in a more relaxed world and have their older sibling to break the ground for them and show them how to manage the tasks of childhood and adolescence. So it’s no wonder that later-borns tend to be not quite so driven and not quite so anxious for success as their older brother or sister is.

The first child in the family enjoys the undivided attention of his parents. No matter what other distractions his parents might have, this kid gets all the attention his parents can spare. The key in raising Child #2 and #3 is to pay a similar amount of attention.

Later-born siblings have smaller vocabularies, on average, than first-borns. Since the number of words a person knows is related to his ability to grasp concepts, vocabulary is a key item. One thing you can do to support the development of your second and third children is to talk with them. It’s easy to let the older child speak for all the kids—he is, after all, older and more articulate than his younger brother and sister. And in the hectic environment of most households, and especially households with several children, it’s hard to find time for the explanations and discussions you had with Child #1. But talking with all your children, and listening to what each one has to say, is one of the ways you can give all your kids the advantages the first kid had.

A second suggestion is to remember that all children in the family are unique and not duplicates of each other. Sometimes parents promote a ”family brand,” like “We’re the Jacksons and we all sing and play music.”  Take time to find out the interests of your younger children, just as you did for your first-born child, and don’t assume that he’s a clone of his older sibling.

Having siblings adds to the richness of family life, especially if everyone can shine. With every new child in the family, life gets more complex and it’s hard to fit everything, and everyone, in. But treating every child like a first born is a good goal to have.

We all want to be number one.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson.  All rights reserved.