Share… Wait Your Turn… Don’t Touch… Playdate Rules That Limit Learning (And What To Try Instead)

Ryan and Luis both want to ride a tricycle in the play area at their child care center. Each child begins to pull on the tricycle’s seat, saying, “Mine, mine.” A moment later they both start to cry. Their carer, observing this, moves closer to the children. She bends down on one knee and says, “You both want the tricycle.” The children continue to struggle. Luis falls against the tricycle and makes it move forward a few inches. Ryan stops crying when he sees the tricycle move. Both children start to giggle and begin pushing the tricycle together.

Charlotte, a 7-month-old infant who is already mobile and able to scoot across the floor, approaches Daisy, who has not yet begun to roll and is on her back. I calmly move closer to them and keep my hand near Charlotte’s as she touches Daisy’s tummy. “Charlotte is touching your tummy,” I acknowledge softly to Daisy. When Charlotte begins to apply pressure, I gently guide her hand the tiniest bit. “Touch gently,” I suggest in a soothing voice. I observe that Daisy appears relaxed and seems to enjoy this interaction for the few moments it lasts before Charlotte moves on.

Ben and Arthur, both 2, are holding onto the toy school bus. Ben screams as Arthur manages to pull it away from him. As I move closer to support them, I acknowledge, “You both wanted that and now Arthur has it.” Then I say to Ben with an empathetic nod, “That’s upsetting.” Ben reaches for the bus again as Arthur stands frozen, taking in the situation. Suddenly, he turns and runs with the bus in hand, and Ben chases him. They both screech and laugh as they circle the outdoor deck. Their joyful chase game continues for several minutes. What’s most intriguing (and telling): Ben figures out ways to instigate this game repeatedly each week using different toys, sometimes without any at all. Other children join in the fun when they’re in the mood.

What do you suppose would have happened if we’d prevented Charlotte from touching Daisy; or made Arthur share; or told Ben to wait his turn?

Separation

In the almost 20 years I’ve been observing infants and toddlers, I’ve noticed that learning to play together is exactly what the children are trying to do. However, this doesn’t happen while they’re following our directions totake turns and play separately.

It’s obviously easier to separate two struggling children at the outset of a conflict. However, I feel that the earlier children learn to struggle, negotiate, and get along with others, the better off they’ll be. You may wonder how letting children struggle over a toy teaches them to get along with others. Struggle is a normal part of human relations.                                                                             – Magda Gerber


Focus on “stuff”

Besides encouraging separateness, forcing kids to share (which usually means, You must give that toy to the other child.) or insisting they take turns keeps children focused on the toys or objects rather than engaging with each other. Granted, most children go through possessive phases, but they tend to pass quickly if we calmly accept them.

You may worry that your child’s difficulty sharing means he will become selfish or that it is a negative reflection on your parenting skills. Remember that a toddler’s possessiveness with belongings is a normal phase that will pass.                                  – Magda Gerber

Toddlers and preschoolers can also be inspiringly flexible, forgiving, generous spirits, and they’re usually captivated by other children. So why emphasize his turn or her turn or keeping toys to themselves until they’re done? Children can use their things for as long as they like at home. Perhaps they don’t need to keep the toy every time in social situations.

There was an experience in class one day that I found fascinating. Greta, a strong, elegant, though somewhat reserved 2 year old had always been one to gently offer toys to her peers as a way of connecting. But on this particular day, she was in an unusually possessive mood, maybe because she’d been traveling extensively with her family and needed to regain a sense of control. She took toy after toy from the only other child in class that day, Annie, who is one of the kindest, most peaceful toddlers I have ever known.

Annie seemed to gladly release every toy she’d picked up, which Greta then stacked in a pile on her mother’s lap. Annie seemed relaxed and carefree, while Greta seemed determined and intense. They reminded me of actors improvising. I imagined the director giving each child their role. “Okay, Greta, you have an impulsive need for stuff. You need to possess everything… Annie, you are in a constant state of bliss, nothing bothers you.”

At RIE we have the luxury of allowing these situations to play out. After we’d observed for several minutes, I asked the rhetorical question, “Who do you think had the most power?”

Dependency on adults

The more adults intervene to decide what’s fair and how children’s play should look, the more children are convinced they need them.

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