Our little ones learn best through play, from mastering a new skill like placing blocks in a tower and gleefully knocking them down again (and again and again!) to learning to share by offering up a variety of toys to Mummy or Daddy for a pretend kiss.
Play experts agree the best way for children to play - and learn essential social skills like self-expression, compromise, creative thinking and emotional resilience - is through imaginative, unstructured playing.
This is what play experts called ‘free play’; when you give your toddler ample opportunity to create and imagine without a specific end result and using toys that can be manipulated and transformed into whatever they desire. There are no set rules to follow, just the fun of playing and exploring. For example, the same building blocks can become whatever your child desires from one day to the next - a tower, a train, a space ship - and always with your child in the driving seat.
Nicola Butler, chair of Play England, says: “For toddlers, play is all about exploring everything around them and working things out for themselves through new experiences. When they’re playing, they are completely absorbed and learning all the time. You can show them how things work but let them experiment, without a prescribed ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way.”
Toddlers love nothing better than a captive and engaged audience of their parents, so try to seize every opportunity to get down and play with them. Your child will be learning all about the world around him by watching and copying your reactions, words and actions. They’re also eager to express their active imaginations - and growing sense of humour - with ‘let’s pretend’ games.
Playing with you is also how your young child will first start to learn the concept of sharing and taking turns.
“Don’t be too controlling and let your child have the freedom to take the lead, responding to them but encouraging independent play too,” says Nicola. “Be specific with your praise, give them eye contact and respond to their cues.”
Learning to share is an important social skill for children but it takes several years to develop with your patient, positive encouragement and role-modelling.
Sharing involves a lot of big concepts for little children to grasp - how to compromise, how to take turns and negotiate, how to express their feelings and how to bounce back from disappointment. By the age of three your toddlers will understand the concept, but it will take a while longer for them to resist the impulse to grab what they want when they want it.
It’s essential to persevere with teaching your child to share - a child who’s taught to think of others’ needs and feelings may grow up to be empathetic, kind, generous (without being a pushover) and ultimately will have the happiness and security of knowing how to make and keep friends.
So how can you encourage your child to share?
Here are some suggestions:
Play cooperative games with your child, consciously demonstrating sharing and using the words and phrases such as “share” and “your turn, my turn”. Examples include putting puzzle pieces in position, taking turns putting each building block in place in the stack or kicking a ball back and forth between you.
Start to organise play dates. At this age, a play date will involve playing alongside each other with occasional interactions and bursts of interest in the other child.
Don’t be too ambitious - an hour at their most alert morning time with a range of toys laid out is a good starting point. But by laying a foundation of sharing space and toys with another child, your child will swiftly learn that playing with a child his age can be double the fun and you’re building the foundations for future friendships.
Throughout the day offer your toddler opportunities to act together and use the word “share” to describe yours and their actions: “Do you want to share my sandwich? Now it’s time to give your sister a turn on the swings. Shall we take turns playing?”
Toddlers will demonstrate “proto-sharing” during play dates - showing an object to another child and allowing it to be admired without quite letting go. This is the first step toward sharing, so reinforce it with positive praise.
Later, when they have started playing with something else, you could suggest they pass the toy over, and praise them when they do. Whether the playmate wants the toy at this point is not as important as practising the act of sharing - and being noticed for it.
When they do share, offer praise. Little by little, they will feel good about repeating those actions that make you so happy. Before long, they’ll start sharing because it comes naturally - just as playing does.
Help children build big imaginations one block at a time with Thomas Mega Bloks.
A great way to encourage creativity, building toys let kids shape the worlds they imagine and tell stories that are truly their own.These big blocks for small hands let children practice problem solving and fine motor skills, using the same pieces to build something completely different and create new stories with Thomas every day.