Toddlers are fascinated by people their own age and size. Playing with other children on a regular basis lets toddlers develop affectionate relationships that can last for years.
Of course, toddlers are just beginning to learn social skills. One 18-month-old can’t really understand another’s point of view, and it will be several years before they’ll be really good at sharing toys, resolving arguments and respecting the needs and rights of others. So, when toddlers get together you can expect some typical toddler social behaviour to emerge.
Toddlers often just stand and watch other children play. It’s best not to pressure them to get busy. Watching is their way of learning about each other.
Young toddlers often play side-by-side each other doing the same activity. Although they seem self-involved, they are probably very much aware of one another. Often they are copying each other and probably they have a sense of companionship that will be the basis for more cooperative play later on.
When one toddler is hurt, another may cry in sympathy. A friend recalls a whole group of playmates all crying at once over a single skinned knee, and a father told us that his daughter’s first sentence was “Joey cry,” uttered when a toddler playmate woke from his nap.
For all their friendly feelings, toddlers do not always understand that their actions can be hurtful. They tend to treat other toddlers like objects. When they poke or hit a playmate, they need an adult to promptly and calmly call a halt to the aggressive behaviour, and then quickly move the children into friendlier play.
Toddlers have no capacity for true sharing. When they see a toy on a shelf, toddlers go up and take it. When they see a toy in the hands of another child, they often do the same thing. They are not being selfish or greedy at this age. They are simply being toddlers. Toddlers should be taught not to grab a toy if another child is playing with it. You can take the toy from the offender and return it to the first toddler, saying, “When Sarah is finished with the truck, you can have a turn.” Then, when the first child finishes with the toy, make sure the second child has a chance to play with it. When toddler guests visit, you might consider handing out duplicates of toys, since sharing is so difficult at this age.
Above all, be patient with toddler friends and notice the affection as well as the conflict in their play. If you watch for the positive incidents, the negative ones will seem less important. It takes years to learn social skills, but you can give your toddler a good start now.
For more information see Social Development.