Why friends and play are important
Children in child care have lots of opportunities to interact with other children their age. But if your child isn’t in child care, it can be fun and helpful to create opportunities for him to play with other children. Even if you have older children who play with your baby, it’s a good idea to give him a chance to watch and interact with children who are at the same developmental level as him.
These early play experiences help your child develop sensory, social and communication skills. It can also prepare her for going to child care, family day care or preschool later.
Giving your child opportunities to play with others can be good for you too. You can meet other parents and carers living in your area, which gives you the chance to make new friends and share your experiences of being a parent.
Here are some things you can do to support your child’s early peer relationships.
Join a playgroup
Many communities have organised playgroups for young children. These provide an informal session where parents, grandparents, carers, children and babies meet together in a relaxed environment to socialise and play.
Playgroups can be a great way for your child to interact with his peers, learn to feel comfortable in a new setting, and be exposed to an exciting variety of toys and activities. As an added bonus, while your child plays, you can talk with other parents who have children the same age as yours.
A good place to find out about these groups is the public library – in fact, more and more libraries run these groups themselves. They often provide toys and a person trained in early childhood development.
A church, synagogue, mosque or family support service in your neighbourhood might sponsor organised playgroups.
Schedule regular playdates
Starting when your child is around one year of age, you can set aside a few times a week for your child to play with her peers. You might meet friends for your baby in your mothers’ group, or just at the local park.
If you’re going to have playdates at your home, make sure the space has been carefully childproofed.
Set up your own playgroup
If there aren’t any playgroups near you, you might consider setting one up. It doesn’t have to be a lot of work or cost you a lot, especially if there’s an open classroom you can use. You could also choose to have just a few participants and hold it in a childproofed area of your home.
Here are some tips for setting up your own playgroup.
Keep it short
An hour or 90 minutes is probably plenty of time for each session, and you should expect that not all the children will want to stay for the whole time. Playing is tiring, and it’s better to stop while everyone is still fresh than to wait until energy and patience are in shorter supply. It’s also a good idea to avoid organising play activities too close to your child’s usual sleep time.
If you take the lead in setting up a playgroup, you don’t need to worry too much about planning activities. For young children, it’s enough to have a few interesting, safe toys and a grown-up (you!) to help everyone feel comfortable. The whole point is to allow each child to play and watch others playing.
Offer guidance when needed
Once you get a play situation set up, you can just sit back and watch for much of the time. But if you see a child playing in a way that might hurt others (for example, swinging a block around in the air), you need to help him find a safer way to have fun. The same goes for a child who doesn’t know how to get started – you can help by bringing over a couple of toys (or giving them to the baby’s parent). Some children need to watch for a while before they feel comfortable joining in.