Play groups and classes offer young children a different type of interaction from that of the home setting. Observation and imitation of peers are key to helping your baby develop her social skills.
by Amanda Cantrell Roche
When my 14-month-old daughter puts her arms around my neck and lays her head contentedly on my shoulder, it’s hard to imagine she needs much more than the love, care and affection of her parents. But when we take her to a gathering where there are other babies and young children, I know better. She connects with them in a way she cannot connect with me. She watches them in rapture. She tags behind the older ones and explores playing and sharing with those her own age, oblivious to my presence. I realize this interaction is something she truly needs and enjoys — for children speak to each other in a language adults have long since forgotten.
Parents who stay at home with their babies and toddlers have a challenge they may not have considered in those early days of nighttime feedings: we all need friends. Eventually the bundle of joy who has eyes only for you will want a playmate her own size.
Peer play and social development
Marguerite Kelly is a mother, grandmother, syndicated columnist and author of parenting guides. “Children learn from each other,” she writes in The Family Almanac, “and they love to learn.” Most young children between the ages of 1 and 2 thrive in a playgroup. She suggests they be made of about four children who are no more than four months apart and are approximately the same weight.
The benefits of play groups extend far beyond pleasure. Dr. Michelle Boyer-
Pennington, associate professor of psychology at Middle Tennessee State University, specializes in early childhood development and stresses the importance of same-age peer play for toddlers.
“Peers are important agents of socialization,” she says, noting that same-age peers serve a different role than parents and older family members. Parents and older children tend to place the baby or toddler in a subordinate role by commanding them or overseeing their activities. “Same-age peers are much less critical and directive,” explains Boyer-Pennington, “so children are freer to try out new roles, ideas and behaviors, thereby acquiring many social and personal competencies they might not otherwise learn in the parent-child/older sibling-child relationship.” She notes that toddlers confined to the company of adults could have socialization problems that continue into adulthood.
“Early research examining peer sociability indicated that rhesus monkeys raised with their mothers and denied the opportunity to play with peers did not develop normal patterns of social behavior,” Boyer-Pennington states. “When they finally were exposed to age-mates, these monkeys preferred to avoid them. On rare occasions when they did approach a peer, the monkeys tended to be highly (and inappropriately) aggressive. Follow-up research suggested that antisocial tendencies often persisted into adulthood. Researchers have concluded that young children who are denied the opportunity to interact with peers often have social difficulties during later peer interactions as well.”
Most older babies enjoy seeing other babies and children, but at what age does it become an actual need for interaction with them?
Boyer-Pennington offers some insight.
“I think that children should have some exposure to other children at as early an age as possible,” she says. Babies become responsive to other children’s emotions and actions at approximately six months of age, and Boyer-Pennington suggests that at this age it does not particularly matter whether playmates are of the same age. However, by the age of 18 months, toddlers are able to interact with each other in a social manner.
“In particular, children this age take great pleasure imitating each other,” she explains. “They often gaze and smile at their partners as they turn their imitative sequences into social games.”
By 20 to 24 months, toddler play has a strong verbal component, and playmates often describe play activities to each other or attempt to influence the role their partner should assume By 2- to 2-and-a-half years, play is even more coordinated, as reflected in their ability to engage in complementary roles, such as chaser and chasee in a game of tag.
Although most toddlers will respond positively to other children, shy children may need encouragement to participate in group play. Start slowly and remain positive. If your toddler does not want to join a group of children, let her watch them by your side. Try approaching other children together and asking if you can both play. Make sure to retreat when she feels comfortable within the group. Through this type of positive interaction, most toddlers are able to overcome shyness and establish successful peer relationships
Evolution of a play group
Rebecca Clements has been socializing with peers for almost the entire span of her 4 years. As the first child of Brian and Miranda, she spends much of her time at home with her mom. Rebecca’s play group and best friends evolved from a support group for new moms that Miranda began attending when Rebecca was about three months old.
“It was just a group of mothers from the hospital where I had Rebecca,” Clements explains. “We’d get together and have lunch once a week and the babies would all be there.” Though Clements got involved in the group to ease the transition from full-time professional to full-time mom, the children were the ones who ultimately benefited most from the arrangement.
When the babies were about 1 year old, the support group fused into an informal play group which met at play grounds or children’s museums. Around the same time Rebecca began attending a Mother’s Day Out program two days a week. Soon after, Rebecca’s two play group friends enrolled as well. Clements says Rebecca really loved going and playing with other children and never had a problem with her mom leaving her there.
Clements feels Rebecca’s outgoing personality and ability to get along well with children were influenced by being exposed to children since she was born. She notes that playing with other children her age helped Rebecca communicate better and encouraged her to explore more than she would on her own. She has no doubt this social interaction is beneficial.
“I think it really is good for them, and it’s good for the mother too.”
Playgroups are not the only option for toddler socialization. For parents desiring a more structured social setting, there are a number of classes for babies and toddlers which the parent or guardian also attends.
My Gym is a nationally franchised program offering developmental play for babies as young as three months up to children 9 years of age. Parents of children ages 3 and under participate in the classes and help their babies and toddlers learn skills such as hanging and tumbling. Kara Howell, director of My Gym in Franklin, says that parents of young children without siblings find their toddlers particularly enjoying other children in class and learning from them as well.
“Parents have told us they feel that seeing other children helps their own child become more mobile,” Howell says.
Another popular program is Kindermusik, an early childhood music and movement program that uses music and parental guidance to nurture a child’s cognitive, emotional, social, language and physical development. Gymboree also offers developmental play classes for newborns to age 4, as well as music classes for toddlers.
Of course, instructional programs are no substitute for unstructured play. However, they can be a good place to start socialization. Howell notes that many play groups have evolved from the toddler classes.
What to expect
Bringing young children together does not always result in instantaneous group play. Most 1-year-olds participate in parallel play, playing side by side but not with each other. This does not mean they are not enjoying and learning from the other child’s presence. Marilyn Segal, Ph.D., writes in Your Child at Play: Age One to Two Years, “even when they are not playing together, toddlers spend a good deal of time watching and imitating each other.”
Rarely have parents never faced an episode of toddler biting, pinching or hitting. Until toddlers can resolve conflicts verbally, it is reasonable to expect a tug of war over toys, a hostile takeover of a tricycle and even some tooth marks on a cheek or shoulder. Be assured that toddlers generally fight less than they play peacefully, and even conflicts can be a learning experience. With adult intervention, most toddlers will learn this is not an acceptable form of behavior.
Remember, play is child’s work. By providing companions, you are not only making your child’s job more exciting, you are paving the way for a lifetime of friendships.