How to Get Your Toddler to Play with Other Children
Some children begin socializing naturally, but others may struggle to make friends or join group activities. If your child is shy, hesitant, or afraid of socializing, you can build up their confidence and social skills at home. Arranging playdates can provide a more comfortable way to socialize for your toddler. Once they are comfortable playing 1-on-1, focus on helping them play in groups at daycare or in other public situations.
Part One of Four:
Building Your Child’s Social Skills
Observe how your child interacts with other children. Pay attention to how your child plays in different environments. Watch them at home, at the playground, or at a friend’s house. Some children may want to play alone or with 1 other child rather than in large groups. Some children may prefer quiet settings to loud settings.
Try new settings to see if your child prefers them. For example, if your struggles struggles at the playground, try taking them to play in a field or at someone’s house.
Change up the groups that your child is exposed to. See if they prefer play one-on-one, in small groups, or in large groups.
Explain to your child when they do something well. This will train them to understand good behavior and help them become more confident. Don’t just praise your child. Tell them what they did well and explain why the behavior was good.
For example, when your child shares a toy, you can say, “That was a really polite thing to do. When we share, other kids get to have the same fun as you did!”
Always talk about the results of their behavior. For example, have them give a gift to someone and say something like “Look how happy your sister is! She loves this picture you colored so much!”
Never criticize or shame your child for being shy. Instead, focus on praising positive behaviors.
Teach your child how to share toys. For young toddlers, learning to share can be very difficult. With some attention, though, you can make this a bit easier. At home, model good sharing behavior.
If you have other children, encourage sharing between siblings. Ask your child to lend a toy or give part of a treat to a sibling, and offer praise for any attempts at sharing. Similarly, ask older children to share with your toddler and thank them for their efforts.
If your toddler does not have siblings, you can share with them yourself. Practice sharing food, toys, or other items. Thank your child when they share with you.
Make sure that you are also modeling good sharing behavior with other people. Encourage your parent, family members, and other children to do the same.
Read picture books about friendship. Buy or borrow some children’s books that deal with sharing, cooperation, and friendship. Read them with your toddler. Take the time to talk with your child about the books.
Pause occasionally in the book to ask your toddler what they would say or do. Encourage them to share their feelings as you read.
Some classic books include The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, or The Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle.
Practice social situations through role play. Choose a situation to act out, such as going to a birthday party or sharing a toy. Act out the situation with your toddler. If they do something well, praise them. If they don’t, correct their behavior by saying something like, “How about we ask them to use their toy first?” 
You, your partner, or the child’s sibling can act as the child’s playdate. Model good behavior, such as how to share or how to say “please and thank you.”
You can also use puppets, stuffed animals, or dolls to act out social situations.
Involve your toddler in family activities. By learning how to interact with family members, they can learn how to interact with other children. Helping out at home can also teach cooperation, sharing, and generosity.
For example, you could have your child help you when you set the dinner table. Ask which plates and cutlery to use, and show that you value their opinion. Thank them afterwards for their help.
Play with your toddler 1-on-1 or encourage siblings to play as well. Your toddler may feel more comfortable and eager to play with their family. This will teach them how to play with others.
Family activities outside of the home, such as grocery shopping or going to the beach, can make your child feel more comfortable in public.
Model good social behavior by inviting your own friends over. You are a role model for your child. Playing with other children will seem more natural if your child sees you socializing with friends and relatives. Make sure that you are demonstrating polite, friendly behavior.
When you have guests over, keep your toddler out with you. Be a good host. Use phrases like “please” and “thank you.” This will show your toddler proper behavior.
Introduce your toddler to your friends. They may be a little shy, but this can help them warm up to other people.
Part Two of Four:
Schedule short playdates at home. Your child will feel most comfortable in a familiar space, so hold their first playdates at home. Don’t schedule the playdate for longer than an hour, as toddlers may get tired or cranky.
This is also a good opportunity to teach your toddler about the role of a host. Explain that it’s important to be kind and generous to guests.
Include your child in the planning process. Ask who they might like to invite and which activities they might like to do. Discuss possible situations that might occur, such as an argument, and talk about possible responses.
Remember, you can always rehearse the playdate with your child through role play before it occurs.
Choose just 1 special friend instead of a group of children. In the beginning, groups can be overwhelming. Start by inviting 1 friend, preferably someone your child already knows and likes. As your child gets more comfortable in these situations, you can expand their social circle.
Ask your toddler if they have someone they want to invite over. If they can’t think of anyone, consider your friends with children around the same age or call the toddler’s school or daycare. Ask the teachers if they know anyone who might want to come over.
Select toys and activities in advance. Choose activities that both children will like and make sure there are enough toys available. Try to have several toys available, ideally ones that are similar or identical. Arguing over toys is 1 of the most common problems toddlers have when socializing.
Put away your child’s favorite toys before the playdate. For toddlers, it may be too much to expect them to politely share their favorite things.
Suggest social activities, like board games aimed at very young children or imaginary play using costumes and toys.
Some great toys for playdates include playdoh, blocks, or dolls and figurines.
Play with the children. Do not simply leave toddlers alone to play, especially if 1 of them is struggling. Your presence will make your child feel more confident, and you can model appropriate forms of socializing and cooperative play.
Always supervise the children. If your child misbehaves or acts rudely, take them aside and gently correct their action. For example, you might say, “When you hit other kids, they may get hurt. You should say sorry.”
Give the kids suggestions if they seem bored. For example, you might say, “Do you want to go play with the bouncy ball in the backyard?” or “Why don’t we get some paper out and draw?”
If the other child’s parent stays over, make sure they’re involved too.
Hold playdates at least once a week. Once your child begins to warm up to other children, try to schedule these playdates as often as possible. As time goes on, you can participate in them less and less, leaving your child to play with their friends without you.
Part Three of Four:
Encouraging Social Play at Daycare or School
Arrange a meeting with the teachers about your child’s social needs. Call up the school or daycare, and tell the teacher that you are concerned about how your child is getting along with other children. Arrange a meeting so that you can discuss this 1-on-1.
Ask them how well your child plays with others. You may want to ask if your child has a particular friend or if they often play alone.
Ask the teachers if your child has any anger or shyness issues. Try to encourage the teacher to be as honest as possible.
Have an open conversation about what you both can do to encourage your child to be more social when they are away from home.
Let your toddler to bring their interests to school. If your toddler is allowed to bring a toy with them, tell them to bring something that they are interested in. This can help them feel more confident at school and help them connect with other children with the same interests.
For example, if they like animals, ask them to pick their favorite stuffed animal. If they like cars, let them choose a truck.
For show and tell, talk with your child about their favorite thing to do or what they’re most interested in. Have them bring in something that reflects that interest. For example, if your child loves art, they can bring in some of their paintings.
Play school at home to teach your child how to act. Ask your child to be the teacher. Pretend to be their student, and get some stuffed animals or dolls to be the other students. Be sure to ask your “teacher” questions, like “What do I do if Susie won’t share the book?” or “How do I ask someone if they will be my friend?”
Role play can also help you uncover your child’s anxieties or problems at school. For example, if your child acts out a bullying scenario, you may want to check in with their teacher to see if anyone is picking on them in school.
Teach your child how to deal with bullies. Young children can be bullied just like anyone else. If your child is shy, they may not want to confront the more assertive children in their groups. Show your child exactly what to do if a child is being too mean.
Explain how to be brave when someone is mean to your child. Give them a phrase to say like, “Please stop it” or “Hey, that makes me feel bad.” With young children, this may be enough to stop the behavior.
Tell your child to ignore the behavior. Make sure your child knows that it never okay to hit, bite, or kick another child, even if they were being mean.
If the bullying continues, instruct the child to tell an adult, such as a teacher, parent, or childcare worker.
Part Four of Four:
Helping Your Child Socialize in Public
Practice introductions. Your child may struggle in public places because the other children are strangers. Teaching a simple “Hi, my name is Donny. Do you want to play together?” will go a long way.
This is a great thing to role play with their toys. Ask your child to introduce their toys to one another.
Take your toddler to places where other children will be. Once your child feels comfortable with playdates at home, you can begin encouraging socialization at places like parks, playgrounds, and indoor play centers.
Let your child choose if they play with other children. Trying to involve yourself too much may be stressful for your toddler. Instead, take a seat where you can supervise your toddler. When they are ready, they will approach other children.
If your child does start playing with others, keep an eye on them in case there’s a fight or they start playing too roughly.
Allow your child to leave a game at will. If your child gets in an argument, gets upset about something, or feels tired and cranky, it’s fine to call it quits and go home. Tell them beforehand, “Once you’re tired, let me know, and we can go home.”
If your child is reluctant to play in public, giving them an “out” like this can make it seem less scary. At first, they may not want to play for long, but slowly, they’ll become more confident.
Acknowledge your child’s efforts to get involved in group activities. Try to recognize your child’s attempts to be social, even if they are rather timid and short-lived at first. They will build confidence and social skills over time.
For example, you might say, “I noticed that you asked some other children to play. It looked like you had a great time.”
Talk to other parents. When you are in public places with your child, you can be a good social role model by chatting with other parents. Let your child see that it’s possible to make new acquaintances.
If your child really gets along with a new friend, try to find their parent or guardian. This may be a great opportunity to set up a playdate with someone new!
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Try not to get frustrated or impatient with your toddler if they resist socializing or seems to struggle with it. For toddlers, learning to make friends is a process of trial and error. Others may simply need more time for developmental reasons.
Never push a toddler too hard to socialize, as this will only backfire. Instead, offer plenty of encouragement and positive incentives.
Just like adults, some toddlers will prefer just a few close friends instead of a large group.
If your toddler begins to talk to and play with an imaginary friend, don’t worry. This is normal, and it can be a good thing. Imaginary friends can serve as “practice” for the real thing.
If your child still refuses to play with others or if they show excessive fear or anxiety of socializing, talk to a child psychologist to make sure there are no underlying developmental problems.
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About This Article
Updated: May 3, 2018
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