Help Children Play Well Together

Joining a new playgroup or setting one up? Think about what policies you’d like to set for handling inevitable issues. Having parents agree on these strategies alleviates tension and creates consistency for each child. It’s hard to make good decisions when feelings are high, and we parents tend to blame each other for our children’s “off track” behavior.If you have discussed and agreed on policies, then you and the other parents involved have the chance to support each other more fully when upsets arise.

In this blog we’ll look at common “trouble spots,” and offer calm solutions for handling them. When you are joining or playgroup or getting together with families, think about these situations:

  • Separation
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Withdrawn behavior
  • Squabbles over possession

Here are some suggestions about policies on these issues, and the reasoning behind them.


Incidents like the parent leaving for a moment to answer the phone, taking a restroom break, or leaving for several hours.

The parent should tell the child, from infancy onward, about any absence they take, however short. The child needs to be told where the parent is going, and for how long. If the child feels sad, the parent can set the child up with another supportive adult while they are gone. That person listens to the child and reassures them until the parent returns.

This policy gives children the information they need to understand their environment. Even infants need to be spoken to as if they understand the words we say: they do understand us much sooner than we realize. It also gives them respect while they take the time to process their feelings around separation. The listener gives the child warmth, closeness, and the safety to express deep feelings without adult disapproval or worry. The crying that children do at these times helps them express their love, and slowly but surely, it frees them from holding feelings of fear about the next separation.

Aggressive behavior

Incidents like a child pushing another child, biting, or giving unwanted hugs or kisses.

Children don’t really want to hurt each other or to miss each other’s cues on how much closeness or roughness is wanted. They become insensitive when they are full of tension or fear. Moving in before they do damage, and preventing thoughtless actions, relieves them of the guilt of having hurt someone, and usually lets them feel and release the bad feelings that were causing them to be “off track.” These hurt feelings need to be expressed before the child can relax. When a child has cried hard with a caring adult, and hasn’t been shamed or blamed, he or she is much better able to notice other children, and to play thoughtfully.

After the playgroup has met a time or two, all the parents will have noted the children who tend to act aggressively when they are scared. It needs to be clear which parents, if not all, will be “safety managers” for the children. Those parents need to pay close attention, preparing for the aggressive behavior to show itself, rather than blindly hoping it won’t happen. They position themselves so that they can immediately, gently, and firmly stop a child’s aggressive acts.

When an aggressive act is stopped by the adult nearest the situation, that grownup should offer to connect with the offending child and make warm eye contact and physical contact. “I can’t let you hurt your friend” can be said with an “I love you” tone of voice. If the child wants to go to their parent at this point, that’s OK. The parent or other grownup should listen to the feelings the intervention has brought into the open. If the child’s parent isn’t there, the adult who stepped in can be a very helpful listener instead. A good, long cry or tantrum, with a supportive adult, does wonders for an aggressive child’s behavior, because it releases the tension that has caused the aggression.

Withdrawn behavior

Incidents like a child hovering at the edges of the group, or going off to “play” alone, unwilling to make contact with anyone.

The adults involved can make brief overtures to the child, offering gentle invitation to connect with them or with other children. Allowing a child a few minutes between each overture gives the child time to try using his or her own initiative to enter the group.

Sometimes, children become so trapped by feelings that they can’t make any use of the opportunity to play with others. An adult needs to help them. Nudge the child gently toward the children or the activity they are afraid of, but just enough that they begin to cry. Then, listen. Listening until the child can make contact will help them over the hump of isolation. It also helps the child feel much closer to the adult who kindly listened. Use eye contact to convey your warmth. Your gentle reassurance that the child is welcome in play will help.

Squabbles over possession

Incidents like a child coming up and grabbing the toy another child is playing with. Also, whining about whose turn it is now.

It’s best if the adults involved can intervene without urgency to solve the problem. Reassure both children that they can work this out.

Boy on toyDecide among the adults what the policy on turns will be, and go by that policy. Among infants and toddlers, I like to use the policy that a child can play as long as they want with a toy, and I (or another adult) will listen to the feelings of the child who wants it. Lots of grief and urgency will be expressed. You can reassure the crying child by saying, “You’ll get the special dolly when they’re through. I’ll make sure you do. I see how much you want it.”

There are several good things about the “I’ll help you wait until they are through” policy. First, we adults don’t have to take things away from children in order to enforce turns. The more children have things taken from them without being able to work through the feelings this causes, the more likely they are to grab things from each other.

The second constructive feature is that children have a chance to grieve fully for the things they want with gentle adult attention while they cry. This helps children work through their attachment to things as the salve for their bad feelings. It offers adult warmth in the place of the desired thing, which is an excellent trade. The child will cry until their grief has been expressed. Then their mind will be open to all the other possibilities for play. When children have this chance to want things openly and be listened to, they tend to be able to relate more fully to adults and friends, and to have a better perspective on the importance of connecting with people in play.

If you enforce turns, a child won’t express their deep feelings of need for the desired thing. When it’s their turn, they will still be full of tension about wanting the toy, and will be paying more attention to keeping others away than to enjoying it. The tension is actually the issue that the child needs help with. A good cry can clear the child’s mind of fixation on that toy, and allow them to fully enjoy the toy and their playmates, when they finally get it.

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