Helping Children Play Well Together

When you get together with other families who have children (whether during playgroup, a family reunion, or a weekend barbecue in the backyard), it helps to have strategies for handling some common issues that may occur. Read more to discover how you can best manage your children’s behaviour during playtime.

When you get together with other families who have children (whether during playgroup, a family reunion, or a weekend barbecue in the backyard), it helps to have strategies for handling some common issues that may occur:

  • Separation from the parent or carer
  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Withdrawn behaviour
  • Fights over possession

This way, when upsets arise (and chances are they will at one point or another), both you and the other parents will be able to support each other in handling the situation.

Understand what your child is going through

Young children have a minimum understanding of how social interaction works. To them, every day is a new lesson. Since social skills are learned as skills, children might have a hard time adopting them at first.

Thus, upsets come along.

What is more, children may not know how to explain their feelings, or how to negotiate with their playmates. This can also result in arguments and even fights between the children, which is why it is important for parents to intervene quickly and settle any misunderstandings.

You can see how child fights occur naturally. Parents could try to identify the social skills that child is missing, and talk to them in ways to make them understand why their reaction is not working for them, or what they can change in the way they solve their problems.

Dealing with separation

How does your child react when you leave the room?

Incidents like leaving the room to answer the phone, or leaving for several hours to deal with other tasks can take your child by surprise. Their reaction can be anything from ignorance towards your absence, to non-stop tears.

From the moment your child can understand you, it’s important tell them whenever you are going to go away. This way, your child can make sense of their environment and have a logical explanation as to why mummy, daddy or their carer is not in the same room with them.

Tell your child where you are going, why, and for how long you will be gone. Be specific, as the child may not know what “5 minutes” is, so tell them instead “by the time you finish building that castle, I will be back.” If your child does not want to be left alone, you can call in another adult to supervise them for as long as you are gone.

Something as simple as that can give your child respect while they process their feelings of separation. When you come back, you can talk to the child about the time you were gone: what did you do? How did you feel about mum (or dad) being gone? Listening to your child’s feedback gives them safety to express their feelings and thus a better understanding of what happened.

If you are dealing with a crying child, know that they react like this as a means to express their love for you and out of fear of being separated from you. Slowly but surely, it helps them prepare for the next separation, when the feelings of fear will be less poignant.

Managing a child’s aggressive behaviour

Children can become insensitive when they are full of tension, fear, or anger. Making sure that you move in before children do any damage relieves them of the guilt of having hurt someone.

As a parent or carer, you can relieve your child from the bad feelings that were causing them to be off track simply by talking to the child about what happened. In moments like this, it is not uncommon for the child to be unresponsive or to attempt to continue their “attack”, but these hurt feelings need to be addressed before they can relax.

Try not to shame or blame your child. Relief coming from an understanding, caring adult can help your child cope with their feelings much better and to play thoughtfully.

If you are in charge of settling down an aggressive reaction, connect with the child and make warm eye contact and physical contact, using a calm tone of voice. A good, long cry with a supportive adult can settle down a child’s aggressive behaviour because it releases the tension that caused the aggression.

Managing a child’s withdrawn behaviour

The opposite of aggressive behaviour, this too is a reaction of anger or frustration – but it is exhibited differently. In this case you can go to your child and gently encourage them to join the group. You can even call other children for help, but make sure these are gentle invitations to play.

To understand why a child wants to play alone, you need to understand what feelings cause the desire for separation: is it fear? Is it anger? Is it frustration? Is it shame?

Listening and understanding the cause can help your child get over the hump of isolation. At the same time, it brings them closer to you, because you were kind to them and listened to their problems.

Fights over possession

A practical example of this is when your child is trying to grab the toy another child is playing with. In these situations, it is best if you can intervene to solve the problem and reassure both children that they can solve this without fights or cries.

Within playgroup, you will need to decide the key actions with the other parents. When your child is playing at home with their siblings, you can choose the mode of action that you think is best for your children.

Whatever you decide, one thing is sure: the children will not be happy over who gets to play with the toy. Grief and urgency will be expressed, tears will be shed, and the children will try to convince you it is their turn.

A good approach to these situations is the, “I will help you wait until he’s done playing with the toy.” A child can play as long as they want with a toy, and the child who is trying to grab the toy from them should be explained that they need to wait. This is a difficult task almost all the time, but there are some things you can do to calm down their spirits:

  1. First of all, do not try to enforce turns: the more children have things taken away from them without understanding why, the more likely they will be to grab things from each other.
  2. You can explain to your child that they will get the special toy when the other child is done playing with it. Reassure them that they will, for sure, get it. “I will make sure you get that toy when he/she is done playing with it. I can see how much it means to you and I will make sure you have it as soon as he/she is done playing with it.”
  3. You can give the child 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 and offers warm adult attention in exchange, which is an excellent trade. A good cry can clear the child’s fixation on that toy and allow them to fully enjoy the toy and their playmates, when he finally gets it.

All in all, a good approach to playtime is to encourage your child to express their emotions as often as possible. In time, they will learn the social skills required for group play and they will master the skills of playing on their own without feeling frustrated or annoyed.

Patience may be required from you and from and the parents of the other children, but there is one thing you should remember: repetition is the mother of learning. The more you go through the same scenarios with your child and approach the situations you encounter with a positive attitude, the more open your child will become to experiencing new things, playing with other children, and sharing their play toys with their friends.

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Playgroup NSW leads play-based programs and services for NSW families with children birth to school age, offering development, shared experiences, and family support, that results in active citizens and inclusive communities.