How to Get a Toddler Engaged in a Playgroup or Playdate
Whether or not your two-year-old is a social butterfly has a lot to do with their ability to tolerate other toddlers.
Playgroups can be awesome arrangements for both kids and parents. Grown-ups get some much needed social interaction with other adult humans (even if some of those parents are guaranteed to objectively suck) and toddlers get blocks and sand tables and interactions with other kids with whom they need to develop their social skills.
For some toddlers, however, playgroup isn’t necessarily a welcoming incubator of friendship. It can be overwhelming at first, especially for younger toddlers, and parents might find themselves with a child in their lap for the duration of the event. And if the setting and structure aren’t right? It could be a pointless endeavor entirely.
It’s not for no good reason that younger toddlers in playgroups are a bit introverted. Kids dedicate the first two years of life to the existential quandaries: “What can I do? What can’t I do? Who am I?” But eventually, toddlers segue from being entirely self-centered and become increasingly interested in other kids — and that is a big paradigm shift.
“Toddlers are just getting to know themselves,” says Dr. Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development at Columbia University and author of How Toddlers Thrive. “Even as they become aware of others, as in peers, they still don’t understand that other people could have ideas, thoughts, and feelings that conflict with their own.”
Four Ways to Get a Toddler Engaged in a Playgroup
- Pair them up. Toddlers do best in pairs, and it helps if both kids are the same age.
- Take it outside. With plenty of room to avoid or escape unwanted interactions, wide open spaces can make playgroups easier on everyone.
- Step in when needed. If your toddler is getting too hyped up and running wild, she might need you to intervene and help her calm down.
- Keep it small. By limiting the size of the playgroup, kids are less likely to be overwhelmed and more likely to get involved.
In other words, they have not yet developed what’s called “theory of mind.” And this, Klein explains, is why it’s sometimes difficult for the smallest kids to hang out with others their own age. After all, what is enjoyable for one child might be alien and overwhelming for another. So while playgroups are an opportunity to let kids be free to explore social situations, it’s important to pay attention to how a child reacts to this level of interaction.
“Some love commotion, but many do not. Some love new situations, but many do not,” says Dr. Klein. “We adults go into these situations with adult expectations that children should learn to get along at this young age. In fact, learning to get along with others takes time, and big experiences in big groups do not always work.”
If a parent is experiencing a clingy two-year-old, Klein says, then that’s okay. They should follow the child’s lead when it comes to readiness for social interaction. “Maybe a crowded place is too much for them, and being there is not the right thing,” Klein says. “Or maybe the child needs time to hang back and get comfortable, and then when they feel comfortable enough, move forward.”
The most important thing is to gauge how the toddler is interacting with peers. By age three, interaction becomes easier because kids are more interested in each other. Wide open spaces are best because they allow a toddler to avoid interactions if they want to, and small groups are still better for fostering tiny friendships. “Having children this age together in pairs is the best idea… [and] toddlers do best with one other child their age,” Klein says. “As they move well into the threes and fours, children gain more skills to play together and have more desire to play together and want to make friends.”
Parents should stay aware of how their toddler is behaving. Even if they are running around laughing, there’s a possibility of them becoming overwhelmed. Klein says that some kids seem like they are having fun, but they can quickly become too hyped-up and need dad to step in and help them take a break.
Playgroups are wonderful for kids when the fit is good. And when planned right, with a vigilant eye, toddlers will start to play with others, leaving parents a chance to have a conversation and maybe walk away having enjoyed some legitimate social interaction of their own.