Tag Archives: play

Benefits of Multi-Age Programs

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In the U.S. most programs for children tend to be limited to children who are all close to the same age – for example, the children in a kindergarten class all turn five somewhere between Sept 1 of that year and August 31 of the next year. But some programs (like Montessori schools, Sunday school programs at churches, or scout troops) are multi-age, with a broader age range. (For example, I teach a multi-age STEM enrichment class for ages 3 – 7). Here’s why I love them:

Benefits of Multi-Age Programs

  • Knowledge and Skill Development: Younger children learn from older children. Older children reinforce and deepen their own understanding of a topic or skill by teaching it to the younger kids. This knowledge is passed on in a variety of ways:
    • Unintended modelling – when an older child is just doing something they want or need to do, (like using the potty or drawing a picture of a dog), they may not even be aware the younger child is observing and absorbing. But children love to learn about what other kids are doing.
    • Social play: The younger ones are exposed to things like better emotional regulation and more sophisticated problem-solving which helps them learn these skills earlier. The imaginary play is also richer as the older ones give ideas to the younger ones and have to figure out how to articulate those ideas so the younger one can play along.
    • Casual mentoring. When an older child wants the younger one to participate in a game or activity, she will just quickly explain it to the younger one so they can have fun together. When the older one is slowed down by the younger one’s lack of knowledge, sometimes they move in to help rather than waiting for the teacher to help. (Like putting on boots so they can go outside for recess.)
    • Resources: Younger children learn which classmates they can go to for help with various tasks, and may seek out their help before asking a teacher. (At one lunch, kids were given fortune cookies. All the non-readers went straight to the kids who could read to ask for a quick answer to ‘what does this say?’)
    • Intentional teaching. Sometimes teachers will ask a child who has mastered a skill to teach it to a child who hasn’t yet mastered it. The learner benefits by gaining information in a way that may be more fun and more confidence-building than learning from an adult. The child who is teaching has the chance to review his own knowledge from a new perspective.
  • Individualized curriculum, tailored to children’s unique skills, not just their age
    • Children are more able to learn at their own pace, making continuous progress rather than having to “wait till second grade, when we cover that.”
    • Some kids are really advanced in some areas and a little behind in other areas. Being in a multi-age classroom makes it more likely that they’ll find peers to fit in with in both those areas.
  • Children may stay with the same teacher for multiple years.
    • The teacher gets to know the child’s strengths and weaknesses, and is better able to tailor the lesson plan to meet that child’s unique needs.
    • There is a stronger parent-teacher relationship.
    • For the child, there’s the benefit of consistency, and a sense of safety and security in the classroom which enables better learning.
  • Less competition / labeling.
    • In a single age classroom, it’s easy to compare kids and say that some are gifted, some are delayed. In a mixed age classroom, it may be clearer that there’s a range of development: the one who does best in math class may have the hardest time in music class, regardless of age.
    • A child who struggles more with social skills might be ostracized by their age peers, but might find companionship in the younger kids in the classroom.
  • A more cooperative, caring learning environment.
    • Older kids learn to be patient, nurturing, responsible. (With guidance from adults!)
    • Role-modelling. The older children learn how to set a good example. “When the teacher asked the older children who were not observing the class rules to remind the younger ones what the rules were, the older children’s own “self-regulatory behavior” improved.” (Katz)
    • In group time, I find that the younger ones are better at sitting still and focusing because they see the older kids do so. The older kids like to show off their knowledge and can often answer the questions the younger ones ask – this builds confidence for the older ones and the younger ones are more excited to learn things from the big kids than they are to learn from a teacher!

Stations at a Play-Based Preschool

I wrote a full post about play-based preschool that provides an overview of how it works, and what the benefits are. This post gives specific examples of the types of activities you might find at a play-based preschool and has concrete examples what children learn from each.

Blocks / Building Materials

The Invitation to Play: the teachers may offer construction toys (like Legos, blocks, Magnatiles) or other creative building supplies (TP tubes, toothpicks and gum drops). Children are encouraged to use them to build any structure they choose. Teachers often mix in other supplies for inspiration: for example, add a toy giraffe and an elephant and children may build a zoo. Add cars and they’ll build roads and cities. Add pictures of famous buildings and they’ll build their representation of the Eiffel Tower. If one child wants to build a stable for her toy horses, and the other wants to make a spaceship, they have to negotiate how to share the blocks fairly.

When children build, they learn the basics of physics, spatial awareness, an understanding of what makes something stable. They learn about sizes and shapes and patterns – essential math skills. They problem solve and experience logical consequences that guide them in how to try again and build it better. They view themselves as competent creators.

Puzzles, shape sorters, manipulables

When a child puts a puzzle together or works with specially designed early learning materials, they learn important ideas about shapes, sizes, patterns, the relationship of the part to the whole, eye-hand coordination, small motor skills, and problem solving. However, many parents don’t buy many puzzles or pattern blocks, because they may be something a child just does a few times and masters. But at a preschool, they may have a whole cabinet full of spatial challenges for your child to explore.

Sensory Play and Play Dough

Sensory Play was once a staple of most preschools and many kindergartens. As public schools have shifted toward teaching academic skills that can be evaluated in standardized tests, sensory play is often phased out.

But when children play in a sandbox, or in a sensory bin full of rice or pompoms, or a water table, or on a light table, this multi-sensory experience can teach so many things. They build eye-hand coordination as they pour and scoop; learn concepts of empty and full, volume and weight – relevant to math; properties of solids and liquid in motion, that the amount of a substance remains the same even when the shape changes, and that some things sink and some things float (science!) They get comfortable with their hands being messy. (This is an important life skill – sometimes we all have to do messy things!)

In the sensory tables, and with play-dough, they can explore how to use so many tools: tweezers, tongs, spoons, scoops, shovels, funnels, rolling pins, cookie cutters, egg beaters and whisks, pipettes and eye droppers, scales, measuring cups and spoons, potato mashers, pizza cutters…

Playdough also gives children the opportunity to

  • express feelings, squeezing and pounding
  • learn about negative and positive space when they cut out shapes with a cookie cutter (this helps with reading)
  • build finger muscles

Art Process / Writing Practice

Preschools often have an easel set up every day, with various kinds of paints and various kinds of painting tools – brushes, rollers, sprayers, or sponges. Children are free to paint anything that they choose to. Many preschools have a “creation station” for collage, offering cardboard and paper for bases, glue and tape, and miscellaneous things to glue on: pompoms, googly eyes, plastic lids, tissue paper scraps, styrofoam popcorn, pretend jewels… almost anything! Many preschools have a writing station with office supplies – paper, markers, pencils, pencil sharpeners, staplers, hole punches, scissors, stickers, rubber stamps, envelopes and so on. Children can make cards for their parents, signs to support their pretend play, booklets, anything they choose. We also do wacky things like salad spinner painting or painting with cars or putting a paper plate on a record player and drawing as it goes round and round.

These are all process-based art activities. No one is dictating what they must create there or what the final product needs to be. It’s completely up to the child to envision something and to make it real.

The children learn how to use all the tools and all the media, they build their finger muscles and their pencil holds, they learn names of colors and how to mix new colors, they learn to recognize shapes and to create shapes, they learn about symmetry, balance, and design. The art is a creative outlet for expressing their feelings and learning that their ideas have value.

Art Projects and Crafts

In addition to art process, we also have projects. These are activities where the teacher creates a sample and puts out all the materials for kids to make a project similar to the sample. It’s up to the child whether they want to use the materials in that way or do something else with them. But we do encourage them to try re-creating some projects, because it gives them practice with following multi-step directions. It lets them practice close observation skills and learn how to imitate or re-create what they see. We can build new skills into these projects they can then apply elsewhere, such as a project where they practice cutting curvy or zigzag lines.

Cars and Trains / Doll Houses / Play Farms

We have toy trains, toy cars, bulldozers and more. Children learn how wheeled vehicles move through the world and what happens when they crash. They learn how things need to be pushed up hills, but going downhill, they go fast on their own (physics!). And, because these toys tend to be very popular with our active, high energy kids, they also often provide opportunities to practice sharing and conflict resolution!

We have small dolls and doll house furniture. We have small plastic farm animals and farm equipment, woodland animals, and zoo animals. Kids may play with these and the cars on their own or they may be combined with the blocks, sensory bins, art supplies, pretend houses we made, and more. When children play with these small worlds, they do a lot of sorting (“I’ll put all the cows in this stall and all the horses in this stall”), counting (“I have 7 racecars that are ready for the race to begin”), and story-telling (“the lions were all roaring at the elephants”). They also co-create with other children – playing side by side sometimes, but then having their horse talk to the other horse, or their doll call the other’s doll to the table for food.

Dramatic Play

Most preschools have a play kitchen full of pretend food, dress-up clothes that allow children to play out many roles, plus baby dolls and stuffed animals to practice nurturing skills with. Many of those materials may be available every class during the year so children have lots of chances to explore them and use them in many ways. Teachers may also have special themes for dramatic play: maybe a farmer’s market in the fall, a gingerbread bakery in December, a valentine post office in February, or a spaceship and mission control.

With dramatic play, children learn to use their imagination, try on different roles, explore other cultures, imitate parenting behaviors they see in their lives, role play a variety of careers, and explore gender roles. Lots of complex language practice happens during pretend play. This area also builds social skills as they have to negotiate about which roles each child will play and what the story line will be.

Board Games and Active Games

Whether it’s Candyland, Bingo, Hide and Seek or Tag, all games offer practice at understanding and following rules, learning how we all get along better when we can agree to and follow the same rules, and learn how to be a good sport – winning with grace, and recovering from the disappointment of losing.

Books and Literacy

Stories are always available in a preschool classroom. Some schools (like Waldorf) use only oral storytelling, but in most, there are books available. They may be used during group time, but also available for independent exploration. Literacy practice may also be incorporated elsewhere: signs or menus in the pretend play area, books on CD to listen to, board games, and in art projects.

Children learn that letters on a page represent words – language written down, then learn to interpret pictures and to follow the development of ideas in the plot of a story. Most important, they see that learning to read is important and enjoyable.

Large Motor Activities / Outdoor Play

So much brain development happens in these early years, and children form the foundation of all the skills they need for a lifetime. This is especially true of motor skills. In addition to all the fine motor practice of puzzles, writing and playdough, preschools also offer lots of opportunity for large motor practice indoors and outdoors. Playing in the playground or on tumbling equipment indoors, throwing balls or throwing paper “snowballs”, digging in the sandbox or running on an ever-evolving obstacle course.

They are building physical strength, coordination and balance as they build all the key physical skills of running, jumping, climbing, and rolling. They learn to take some risks and be bold, while also learning when they need to be cautious, and learning to emotionally regulate through it all. There’s also important skills in taking turns on the slide, watching out for other people before moving, and moving around others carefully. As our kids ride trikes madly around the playground they’re learning skills they’ll need in driver’s ed someday!

Snack and Clean-Up Time

Snack time can always include practice at choosing and trying new foods, practice using silverware and table manners, learning to sit with others while eating, and practicing social conversation. Many preschools also involve the children in making their own simple snacks, which can include practice with cutting with a knife, stirring, spreading, sprinkling, measuring, and so on. Learning these life skills at an early age builds confidence and competence.

Children also learn confidence and competence as they help out with clean-up time. They may help put all the toys away, wipe tables, sweep the floor, put lids back on markers, and fold up the tumbling mats. This teaches life skills, teaches them that they can make meaningful contributions to a community, and motivates them not to make too much of a mess in the first place! But also, putting away toys is a great exercise in sorting things into categories (a key science skill) which requires noticing details, observing similarities and differences in object, concepts of color, size, and shape.

Check out the overview of play-based preschools.

Play-Based Preschool

Those of us who teach preschool often use the term “play-based preschool” and often forget that may not mean anything to the average first-time parent looking for their first preschool! You may be wondering: what does play-based preschool look like? And what do kids actually learn if they’re just “playing”?

The Big Picture

In a play-based preschool: The teacher sets the stage with engaging materials and supplies for fun activities. Then the children explore through play: observing, experiencing, wondering and discovering. The teacher is nearby to observe, ask questions, make suggestions, or play along. But each child decides which activities to do, which toys to play with, what to do with them, and for how long. Play is spontaneous, fun and creative, and the focus in on process, not product. Play is done for its own sake, not to accomplish a task. It involves lots of exploring of possibilities, experiments, trial and error, and repetition which reinforces learning.

In some settings, such as outdoor preschools, the teacher may do little “set-up.” They may just wander and learn about whatever they discover as they go. However, the majority of play-based preschools have a center-based approach, also known as activity centers or stations. The teacher makes a very conscious set of choices about what activities to offer so there are options that help children grow in all areas of development and build all types of intelligence. There are fresh new activities each day, but there is also a lot of consistency where the same materials may be available for many weeks straight. This respects what we know about brain development – children need a combination of novelty and repetition to learn.

Stations and Classroom Set-Up

During free choice time, children are encouraged to move freely between stations. Some children will spend an entire class at one station if it’s really captured their attention. Some will flit between all the stations, trying everything out. A child might be playing alone for a long time, or they might be in the midst of group play. That freedom to move helps them self-regulate based on their mood and their energy level, lets them opt in or out of social play, lets them focus on what they most want/need to learn and allows for lots of practice with decision-making.

Typical activity centers include:

  • blocks and other building toys
  • sensory bins, water tables and light tables to explore with all of their senses
  • art process activities like play-dough and painting at the easel
  • craft projects where children practice following directions to create a specific product
  • book corner, writing center, puzzles, and board games to learn pre-academic skills
  • doll houses, dress-up clothes, and toy kitchens to tell stories and role play things they see in daily life and things they can only imagine
  • large motor activities like climbers, tumbling mats and riding trikes to build physical strength and skills
  • a snack station where they learn to prepare their own food and clean up after themselves
  • a nature and science station for learning about the world around them

[In a separate post, I cover these stations in more depth, with more pictures and concrete examples of what the children learn at each: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2022/02/13/stations-at-a-play-based-preschool/]

Some teachers refer to the classroom materials as “the third teacher.” (Parents and teacher are the first two.) Setting up materials in an intentional way helps to guide children’s learning. Teachers consider the skills they want the children to work on and find ways to set up an “invitation to play” that will inspire kids to engage. For example, if a teacher notices a child is resistant to holding a pencil and lacking the finger strength to write well, they might choose a variety of small motor muscle building activities for that child, like using tweezers to pull sunflower seeds off the sunflower, and working with Legos and play-dough, and popping packing bubbles or pulling velcro open to make that cool noise.

The Teacher’s Role

You might envision “teaching” as a teacher sitting at the front of a classroom, teaching one skill to everyone at once. There is absolutely a time and place for this sort of direct instruction – it’s the best way to teach some specific skills or facts. However, during this time, as the teacher is active, the children are often passive. Some may be very engaged in the learning, some may be distracted. Some may have already mastered the material that is being taught, and some may not yet be ready for it.

During free choice time in a play-based school, the teacher’s role is very different and much more individualized to the learner. As the children play, the teacher moves around the room, facilitating play and extending learning. There might be two children working on cutting paper for a craft – one has mastered scissors, the other has not, so the teacher offers guidance to the child who needs it. If a child is building with blocks, the teacher might ask open-ended questions to extend the child’s learning, or scaffold learning by making a few suggestions about how to build a stronger foundation for their block tower. If children are engaged in pretend play in the “kitchen”, the teacher might pretend to be a customer and place an order, and encourage the children to write it down and to count the pretend money. Sometimes the teacher just follows along with child-led play, which is a great way to practice communication skills. Sometimes the teacher will encourage the child to move on and try new activities if they feel like one has been mastered.

(More about the role of the teacher in a play-based class: http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.com/2012/04/teaching-play-based-curriculum.html)

There is a lot of intentional planning and support that goes into a good play-based preschool, but sometimes it’s hard for the parents to see exactly what is being learned, so let’s look at some example activities and how children benefit.

Group Time / Music

Most play-based preschools spend part of their day in group time. This might include: singing songs or playing instruments, story time, learning about the calendar, watching demos of activities they could choose to try during free choice time, learning about a key concept for the weekly or monthly time, celebrations like birthdays or VIP, and chances for children to show and tell.

Lots of school readiness practice is happening here: learning to sit still, listen to the teacher, wait while others are talking, take their turn when it’s time, take an instrument when offered and return it when asked. They are exposed to new ideas and new vocabulary during theme discussions, learn core music skills like rhythm and tone, and build their memory skills as they remember the words of songs and poems.

Don’t all preschools incorporate play?

Of course! (And if you find a preschool that doesn’t incorporate play, avoid it!) At almost all preschools and daycares you will find many of the elements described here. But some focus on this more than others.

You’ll get a sense of which schools truly embrace play-based learning by looking at their schedules and talking to their teachers.

For example, at one of the preschools I work with, they are very play-based – the schedule is a five minute group time for a good morning song and a little preview of the day, then 100 minutes of free choice time, clean-up, ten minutes for a story-time in a group, 20+ minutes of free play outdoors, then some music time outdoors to end the day. That adds up to less than a half hour of structured group learning, and over two hours free choice time indoors or outdoors, and the play-based learning has plenty of opportunity to unfold. They have several sessions on a theme, where the primary art project might change, but most of the other activities stay the same. The balance between novelty and repetition matches what we know best supports brain development. If you talk with the teacher, they will definitely share their view that free play in a rich environment is the best way for children to learn..

I lead a STEM enrichment class for 3-6 year olds that mixes direct instruction and play-based learning. We have 30 minutes of discovery time where the children explore the stations for the day, then a 30 minute group time where we use a non-fiction book, a song, and demos to teach the science concepts of the day, then 40 minutes of tinkering time where the children return to the stations to apply the concepts that they learned. After a quick snack break, we have 20 minutes of group time to wrap up the ideas for the day, read a fun book related to the topic and play a fun related game. So, that’s 50 minutes of structured direct instruction and 70 minutes of free choice play-based learning. And it’s a different theme every week, so there’s almost no repetition of activities. This is great for providing children with novelty – new experiences and new ideas – crystallized knowledge. But, it’s not as powerful as the preschool for providing the opportunity for children to stay with an activity for as long of periods of time over many class sessions – that repetition could build more mastery of the concepts and skills. So, my program is play-based… but not as pure about it as the preschool. (Note: the reason I feel OK with this is the class is a parent-child program where they participate together, and I encourage the parents to talk about the ideas outside of class, and watch optional videos to review or preview the ideas and repeat their favorite activities and games from class, so that parent involvement offers opportunities for reinforcement outside of the class.)

An example of play-based learning

Yesterday morning at the preschool, I had a spontaneous interaction that provides a good example. I didn’t have any particular plan in mind when this started. One girl had found our basket of plastic toy dogs and had picked out one dog. I said “you have one white poodle.” (number, color, and vocabulary learning) I asked: “are there any other white poodles in the basket?” She then looks through the basket until she finds all the white poodles and we count them together. (Practicing observation skills, sorting, and counting.) A couple other children have joined in. We decide which type of dogs each one will seek out, and we line them all up by category, counting how many we have of each type and comparing that. (Social negotiation, sorting, counting, organizing, and comparing quantities. I also taught the vocabulary of names of dog breeds and talked about their characteristics – color, size, fluffiness, etc.) We added up how many we had total. (56!)

At this point, we are probably 10 minutes into this spontaneous exploration and I’ve got four kids completely captivated in this process even while other children were doing many other activities around us, and another who is enjoying the joke of adding his duplo horse into the mix as we try to count and we laugh that it doesn’t fit! I was ready to extend the play, so I suggested maybe we could use the blocks to build a zoo for all the types of dogs. That stretched into a 15 or 20 minute block session where all these children stayed with it the full time and a few others wandered in and out. I was closest to the blocks, so they would ask me to pass them blocks. I asked them to tell me what shape and size they wanted, so we got all sorts of practice in quantity, comparing sizes, and learning names of shapes.

One child who rarely speaks aloud to anyone in the class was speaking to me easily and freely as it helped her get the materials she needed for our joint game. They practiced building skills, I suggested ways to make structures more stable, they negotiated for ways to share the materials when someone else had what they wanted. We managed the frustration of having someone accidentally knock over something you were working on. Other children brought over some dolls, and we added visitors to our zoo. They also brought signs so we practiced reading those and talked about which ones we could use. (Literacy practice.) The children were so relaxed and focused on play this whole time, even while they heard excited shrieking from the other room where there was a new piece of climbing equipment. I was ready to move on and check in with other children, but reminded them that we would all need to work together later on to put away the blocks, since we had used almost every block on the shelf in our big project. Later on they and the other children helped put back all those blocks – each type of block has a specific spot on the shelf, so they put all the squares in their zone, and all the arches here, and all the triangles there, and so on, and put all our dogs back in the basket. So much spontaneous learning, all starting with one question to one child.

But was this the only thing happening that day? Not at all! This was a co-op preschool with 20 kids, 3 staff, and 2 parent volunteers that morning. The kids who wanted to engage in what I was doing did so for as long as they wanted. But in the meantime, other children were in the “gym” climbing on the climber and rolling down the mats. Others were in the library looking at books and putting puzzles together. Others were stringing beads and putting heart stickers on valentines in the art area, and others were busy in the kitchen area making pretend soup. Each had the ability to choose whatever most inspired their curiosity and joy that day.

Where can I find a play-based preschool?

One great option is to see if you have co-op preschools in your community. They are almost always play-based. Forest kindergartens or outdoor preschools are play-based, with even less structure than the station based experience I describe here. You may also find some preschools that are what I call the “church basement” preschool – sometimes run by the church but sometimes rented out by a non-profit preschool that has been there for 40 years. Many public school districts offer a preschool but these tend NOT to be play-based as they are often taught and administered by people trained in k-5 education and standards-based curriculum and may not be as informed about the best learning methods for young children. For other preschools, you just have to check out their websites and brochures and see how they describe themselves and their schedules.

If you are in Washington state, check out the co-op preschools sponsored by parent education programs offered by our community colleges. (Full list of Washington programs: https://www.opepwa.org/contact.) Learn about these programs and find links to all the programs in King County here: https://gooddayswithkids.com/parent-ed-at-colleges/. I teach for Bellevue College Parent Education and the photos on this page are from our co-op preschools and our art and science enrichment classes.

Social Skills After Quarantine

In 2021, as we are beginning to come out of the isolation of COVID-19, parents may feel a special urgency to make up for lost time on social development. Learning about developmentally normal stages of social development can help you to prioritize what support your child needs and how to help them make connections.

Making Up for Lost Time

Early childhood is prime time for learning social skills. For children that were socially isolated during those years due to coronavirus, parents may worry that their child’s social skills will be irreparably damaged. But children are so resilient – when social play opportunities open up, they’ll catch up!

First, remember – your child has been practicing social skills! Even if it was just one child and one adult living together, there was plenty of opportunity to practice talking and listening, taking turns, playing together, and conflict resolution. (If there were additional people or animals in the mix, even better.) If you want to evaluate whether they’re on track with social skills, check out this checklist of play skills (or this one) that children typically develop at each age – you may discover they are right where they should be developmentally. If they haven’t yet mastered some of the typical skills, the checklist will give you a sense of what to work on.

Learn what’s normal / what’s next:

It’s helpful to know what we’d typically expect at each age for children so as they start to play together, you can watch for these skills. It’s also helpful to know what’s next in typical development, so you can foster opportunities for learning.

Infants – if your baby was home with only you during the first few months, that’s fine! A young baby can get all the social cues and interaction they need from just one or two caring adults. Just practice serve-and-return interactions, where your baby smiles at you and you smile back. Your baby coos and you coo back. (Learn more.) And learn about infant cues to guide your responses. If your baby has the opportunity to interact with additional adults or older children, they will likely happily engage with anyone.

Older Babies. From 6 – 12 months, your baby learns to play more interactively with you and will likely enjoy peek-a-boo, copying your actions, clapping with you, passing toys back and forth, and finding toys you have hidden. Some babies may play happily with all they encounter. However, it is important to know that even in normal times, many infants develop a fear of strangers at around 7 to 8 months, so interacting with other people in person prior to that may help to reduce that. If you’re just introducing your child to other people at this age, reassure yourself that stranger fear is developmentally normal, not just a product of coronavirus quarantine… they will outgrow it just as all babies have always outgrown it. Here are tips on reducing separation anxiety. And more tips.)

Young Toddlers – up to 2 years. Before 18 – 24 months, children primarily engage in solitary play, where they engage with toys, but often appear uninterested or unaware of other children. So, if your child was in isolation during this period, don’t worry about it! If you bring them back into connection with other kids during this period, know that it’s normal for them to not really engage much. They do engage with adults or older children more effectively than they do with peers, so if you’re choosing only one COVID playmate to help build your toddler’s social skills, 71 year old grandma or 17 year old babysitter may be as good a match as a 17 month old buddy. To build social skills, try Floortime play, which begins with child-led play, then “stretches” the play to be more interactive and turn-taking.

Onlookers: Around 2 years old, they begin to shift to spectator play, where they may begin observing other children more. This is a great time to take them to public parks where they can watch other children at play, up close or from afar.

Older Toddlers – 2+ years. Children begin to engage in parallel play. They will play next to each other, often mimicking what the other child is doing. They may not often engage in reciprocal back-and-forth play with a peer, but they are learning from each other. If your child was isolated during this stage, they almost certainly did parallel play with you. If you’re re-integrating them into social play at this age, they can do fine one-on-one or in groups, with familiar kids or with children they’ve just met.

“Stealing” toys is very common at this age. They are not intentionally trying to deprive the other child of something… it’s just that they noticed what the other child was doing and they want to do it now. One of the most effective ways to handle this issue is distraction – let the child who seems more focused on the contested toy keep it, and distract the other child with a new toy. That will work better, and is more developmentally appropriate than telling children to share.

Three Year Olds. Around age 3, children begin to do more associate play. They start to interact more with each other, trading toys, copying each other, or “inviting” the other child to participate in what they are doing. They become more interested in the other child than in the toy. They may work together on a goal – like building with blocks, but there aren’t usually “rules” to the game. They can learn social skills by playing with adults or with older children, but it’s great if they can have peer interaction at this age. It does not have to be in a large group pre-school. One-on-one or a few children at a time is fine. It may be tempting to enroll in classes as your primary place to connect with other kids, but if your main goal is social skills, it is easier for children to learn those in settings that allow lots of free play (a playground, playdates with other families, a play-based preschool, or a family size child care setting) than in a structured class (like a gymnastics or soccer class where the teacher is trying to keep them on task.)

Check out the “skills to practice at home” section below.

Four and Five Year Olds. At this age, they have moved into true cooperative play. They share toys, they share ideas, they create “rules” or agree on which role each one will play in a pretend game, and work together toward goals. They start learning more about cooperation, compromise, and fair turn-taking. Whereas at younger ages, it’s fine to have your child play with lots of different kids, this is an important age for children to have a few consistent buddies to play with repeatedly, to build friendship skills. If they are enrolled in a group setting, like preschool or extracurricular classes, look for children there that they most connect with, and try setting up playdates with that family to give them more opportunity to connect. Or, if you’re still limiting exposures to other kids, find just one to three families for a low COVID risk playgroup. Check out “skills to practice at home” below, and my post on “Teaching Friendship Skills.”

Reducing Coronavirus Risk

Every parent has to make their own calculations, but here are some things to consider.

  • If the number of vaccinated people in your community is high, and the number of current cases are low, there is less risk of community transmission than when there are fewer vaccinated folks and case numbers are growing.
  • The risk of transmission in outdoor, socially distanced settings is lower. The risk at indoors, poorly ventilated, non-distanced settings is higher.
  • If the parents at the playdate are vaccinated and wear masks, the risk is lower.
  • If children (over age 2) wear masks, the risk is lower.
  • Fewer people involved means fewer exposure risks.
  • You can plan activities that make it easier for children to stay distanced, or provide supports to help them remember to be distanced (like hula hoops or sit-upons to mark places to sit.) Teach them to wave hello rather than hugging or high fiving. Have them wash hands before and after play. Save snacks for after the gathering.

Skills to Practice at Home

You can boost their social skills by practicing in advance of playdates. Do lots of pretend play, puppet shows and role plays, and talk about the social and emotional experiences of characters in stories that you are reading.

When teaching about emotions, I have always taught children to recognize how facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice all communicate emotion, but especially when masks cover up much of our facial expressions, the other non-verbal cues are especially important to teach.

Practice give-and-take conversations, where you take turns fairly, don’t interrupt each other, and ask the other person questions about what they said rather than always just telling them things. Role model social skills by how you interact with friends, family and people in the community.

Introduce the ideas of taking turns. Play side by side with your child, and occasionally ask: ‘can I play with that toy now?’ Or say ‘you can have that toy for one more minute and then it’s my turn.’ If they try to take a toy from you, say ‘I’m playing with it now. You can have it in a minute. Here’s another toy you can play with now.’ Don’t expect 2 – 3 year olds to be good at sharing and taking turns! It’s a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, and they just have to reach a stage of development where they can empathize with another child’s feelings. But practicing at home gives them a chance to build trust in the idea that if they let you have your turn that you will give it back when it’s their turn.

If your child seems shy or withdrawn, don’t assume it’s because of COVID. It could just be their natural temperament. Just search online for tips to help with a shy or introverted child, or what I like to call a “slow-to-warm-up” child. Some simple ways to help them are: get together in smaller groups in quiet, not chaotic environments; arrive before the other child(ren) to get settled; sit on the ground and let your child sit on your lap till they feel ready to venture out. Don’t push.

Learn more in my post on “Teaching Friendship Skills.” Also check out “Making Up for Lost Time” from Bright Horizons, Helping Your Child Make Friends Again from PBS, and my tips for Successful Playdates.

Easy Play Anywhere Games

It’s super helpful to have ideas for simple games that can be played anytime / anywhere, so when you’re stuck in a line or a waiting room, you’ve got a way to entertain kids.

Most of these work best for children age 5 and up. A few, like I Spy and Scavenger Hunt, are good for younger kids – I’ve marked those with an asterisk.

Talking / Listening Games

These games can be played anywhere, with no materials. (They even work great over the phone or on Zoom.) They can work with two people or with a group. No need to move around to play, so they’re good for restaurants, car trips, etc.

Progressive Stories. One person starts a story: “Once upon a time, a polka-dotted elephant…” then the next person continues “… boarded a spaceship headed for… “

Packing the Suitcase. One person starts with something like “My aunt was going on a trip to Japan and she packed her toothbrush…” and the second person says “My aunt… packed her toothbrush and a four leaf clover.” The third person repeats what has come before and adds a new item. Keep going till someone makes a mistake.

Two Truths and a Lie – Each person tells two true things about themselves and one lie. Others have to guess the lie.

Would you Rather? Ask any question using the format “would you rather ______ or _______” and the other(s) choose their preference, and why.

Fortunately / Unfortunately. One person starts a story with something as simple as “One day I decided to go for a picnic in the park.” Then the next person says “Fortunately [fill in the blank]” then someone else jumps in with “Unfortunately [fill in the blank]” and keep on going… on and on…

Never Have I Ever: One person says “never have I ever _______” and describes something. If you’ve never done it either, you leave your fingers down. If you HAVE done it, raise a finger and keep holding it up. The next person says “never have I ever”. At the end of the game who ever has the most fingers up “wins.”

Play 20 questions. “Is it an animal, vegetable, or mineral?” (Learn more.)

Geography. Someone names a place (city, country, whatever category you decide on). The next person needs to name another place that STARTS with the letter that one ENDED with. So, for example, CaliforniA, ArkansaS, South CarolinA. Can also do animals or other categories following the same rules.

*I’m thinking of an animal that starts with the letter A. You say that… someone guesses it, then it’s their turn to say “I’m thinking of an animal that starts with the letter R, or whatever. Instead of animals, you could do Star Wars characters, Pokemon, or whatever. [For younger children, simplify this by describing things: “I’m thinking of an animal that’s small and brown… we’ve seen one in our backyard… it has long ears…”]

Categories. On NPR’s Sunday puzzle, he sometimes has a puzzle like “If I give you the 5 letter word Piano, can you give me five women’s names that start with the letters in PIANO?” (e.g. Paula, Inez, Amy, Nadia, Olivia). We pick any five letter word, and do categories like “Cities in Washington” or “Models of Car” or “Animals” or whatever.

And if all that was too cerebral, try: Rock Paper Scissors and Thumb Wrestling.

*I Spy. One person finds something they can see around them, says “I spy with my little eye….” The other person searches for it. When they find it, it’s their turn. For toddlers, this is simple “I spy something red” or “I spy a dog.” For older kids, it’s more sophisticated “I spy something starting with the letter L” or “I spy something that was made before 1980.”

Paper and Pencil Games

These just require something to write on. Paper, white board, the Zoom white board, etc.

Tic-Tac-Toe. Draw out a grid – you and opponent take turns drawing in X and O.

Hang Man. You come up with a word, draw out the hangman. Participants guess letters.

*Doodle Game. One person makes a random scribble, then the other person needs to use that scribble as the foundation for a drawing – creating some artwork that somehow includes that scribble. For young children, they always do the scribble, the grown-up always completes the drawing.

Dots and Squares. Draw several columns of dots. Person 1 draws a line between two dots, then person 2, then person 1 again… whenever they complete all four sides of a box, they write their initial in the box.

Draw on Your Head. The child places the paper on top of their head. Then you give a clue, like flower, bird, house, etc. They draw a picture on top of their head without looking, and then share it.

Find details on these and more pen and paper games here: https://www.thelondonmother.net/easy-pen-and-paper-games/

Moving Around Games

*Play Simon Says. Or Red Light, Green Light. Or any of the MANY variations on Tag.

*Scavenger Hunt Fetch. Ask child(ren) to find certain objects – they run and find it and bring it back.

*Charades. Give a clue to one person – they act it out – others guess. For younger children, you act things out, they guess.

On the Move Games

These are for when you’re walking or moving in a car or on a bus or train…

License Plate Game. How many states or provinces can you spot license plates from over the course of a trip. If you print a map of the states, your child can color each in as they find the license plate, which will reinforce geography knowledge for them.

Find the Alphabet on Signs. Find a sign with the letter A on it. Then another sign with the letter B. And so on. (Or do the same with numbers.)

*Find Colors. Spot something red, then orange, yellow, green, blue, purple…

*Scavenger Hunt. Prepare (or find online) a list of items to try to spot as you travel. Or you can create Bingo boards. For younger children, just tell them one idea at a time to search for – can you find an animal?

Punch Buggy. If you see a Volkswagen Beetle and call Punch Buggy, you get to punch someone. P’diddle, P’daddle. After dark, if you see a car with one missing headlight, you say p-diddle, and if you see a car with no headlights, you say p-daddle. You get to kiss someone.

Encore. Name a word – other people try to sing songs including that word.

While You Were Sleeping. When someone wakes up from a nap, make up a crazy story of “what they missed”.

There are more fun ideas for road trip games here: https://www.erieinsurance.com/blog/road-trip-games-to-play