Getting our children to play together nicely is a major struggle for most families.
I’m the middle of 5 kids. I remember it being a major struggle for my mom and she would tie the two fighting children together at the ankle and force us to play together until we could be nice.
I also learned as a preschool teacher for 10 years that it’s really important to have children that can play together. It impacts the levels of chaos and peace in the classroom or home and gives the adults a bit of independence to not have to entertain and play with the children constantly.
Cooperative play is really tricky. It involves sharing, compromise, communication, and bargaining. Working together with another child can be really difficult and frustrating and takes awhile to learn.
I’ve picked up some tricks and tips along the way as a middle child of 5 and a preschool teacher of 100’s of children.
CHECK YOUR EXPECTATIONS
First of all, it’s important to have an understanding of the stages of play and when we can expect children to play cooperatively together. If we expect one-year-olds to play cooperatively we’re going to end up frustrated and disappointed.
Check out my post on the 6 Stages of Play and What They Look Like here.
Additionally, you know your child’s personality better than anyone. If your child is timid, they may take a few play dates before they warm up to their friends. Maybe they’re aggressive, so they may need a bit more help playing nicely.
If they aren’t capable of playing cooperatively right now, that’s OK. Perhaps setting up some parallel play activities for a time will be what’s right for now. (See the link above for an explanation on parallel play).
SET A GOOD EXAMPLE
Children are always watching us for how to be and act. Make sure you’re showing them how to act with people instead of just telling them. If you’re constantly yelling at your spouse or taking things from them without asking first, they’ll do the same to their siblings (and you.)
I’m about to make myself look bad to tell you an example…
I yell at our dog a lot. He’s kind of a naughty dog and does a lot of things that frustrate me. My son loves our dog, but recently he’s taken to yelling at the dog too. This has really made me check myself and the way I act to the dog, because I want my son to love and be kind to animals!
MAKE IT FUN TO PLAY TOGETHER
Sure, you could make them do chores together. Maybe that’s fun for them. But if you choose an activity that is fun and all the children want to do, they’ll end up playing together so that they can play with the fun thing.
PLAY TOGETHER WITH THEM
I’m gonna take a wild guess here; your kid likes playing with you, right? Play together with your children. By doing this you’re able to get them to play together (as a group with you), and also set positive examples for how to cooperatively play.
This was how I always got shy children to play with the other children when they were struggling. I would ask to play with them, and let them choose our activity. Eventually, some other children would see their teacher playing and want to join in. I would always defer to the shy child. “Sophia picked this game. Can he join in, Sophia?” Sometimes they’re ready, sometimes they aren’t.
Eventually, they’ll be so good at playing with each other with a teacher or parent present, you’ll be able to slip away. It may take several times of playing together, but the time investment will be worth it.
ENCOURAGE POSITIVE BEHAVIOR
When you see them working well together, mention it! “Wow, you guys are really playing well together! I love to see that.”, “I just saw how you helped your little brother with that puzzle, that was a really kind thing to do!”
This reinforces in their little brains and hearts that being kind, helpful and cooperative is a good way to be!
HELP THEM SOLVE THEIR ARGUMENTS
Arguments are bound to pop up with children no matter what. Take the time to teach them problem-solving skills from the beginning and it will help them throughout their lives.
It’ll also help you since you won’t need to solve all of their problems for them once they figure it out.
I’m working on a post of my own on problem-solving, but for the time being, Positive Parenting Connection has a great list of 15 positive strategies for conflicts, arguments, and back talk.
HAVE COOPERATIVE GAMES AND ACTIVITIES AVAILABLE
If you have fun activities and games that need to have 2+ players around, then they’ll want to play together. As a teacher when I would choose which toys and activities would go on our shelves, I would always try to choose a variety of “group size” activities.
A Mom With a Lesson Plan has a list of activities that are great for encouraging cooperative play.
ENCOURAGE THE OLDER CHILD TO HELP THE YOUNGER CHILD
Older children tend to be really easily flattered when a younger child is around. “You’re really good at Lego, that’s why your brother is watching you. Maybe you can show him how to do it?”
Play off of each child’s strengths, help make the other child think “wow, my brother is actually pretty cool.”
LET THEM CHOOSE WHETHER THEY PLAY TOGETHER
Ultimately, if they don’t want to play together, don’t force them! You’ll only end up with arguments and whines if they’re forced to play together. They’ll have each other as siblings for the rest of their lives, they’ll figure out how to live and work together throughout the years. No need to force it.
Learning to work and play together is something that takes a long time, so have patience. Even when you think they’re great together, they’ll still have arguments.
In the beginning, especially when they’re really little, it takes a bit of time and help from the adults. As they get better at playing together, though, they’ll need you less and less.