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Stages of Sharing

by Daniel on February 23rd, 2011

Q: My kids are always fighting over their toys. How do I get them to share?

A: We have the same trouble at our house. One year, my two nephews, 16-month-olds, were playing with three identical toy trucks. Each boy had a truck in one hand and with the other was fighting over the third truck.

Learning to share takes time and experience to develop. I find it helpful to introduce parents to The Stages of Play. These stages, which relate to age, help us determine where each child is and how to support their advancement to the next stage.

Unoccupied Play: Very young children, usually under 2 years of age, may stand and watch others playing but choose not to join in. They feel overwhelmed by the noise and activity. As they become more secure, they will move to Solitary Play.

Solitary Play: The child will find a few toys and sit by herself, ignoring others. This is most common in children younger than 2. At this stage, the child is learning about the potential of the toy, and other children are a distraction. My nephews mentioned above were at this stage. Sharing is just not possible. The best we could do was to remove the third truck altogether.

Parallel Play: From age 2 until about 6, children spend a great deal of time playing beside each other but not really together. They often become loud and boastful, each child trying to one-up the other. They are playing with the same toys, but it could never be described as sharing. Parents can suggest ways they can work together, and for brief times, the children may try. But they will quickly slip back into Parallel Play when the support of an adult or older child is gone.

Cooperative Play: This is the stage in which children figure out that the play is more fun if they have a goal. “Let’s play house!” is an example of setting a goal. When children agree, they have discovered how rewarding play with others can become. Now, sharing makes sense. We see children as young as 3 (usually girls) who have reached this stage. For most children it isn’t consistent until around age 6.

As you observe your three children, you will see that they move through several stages during one playtime. Suggest open-ended types of toys to help encourage cooperative play, especially with children of different ages. Blocks, pretend play like dollhouse or dress-up clothes and train sets work well.

Here are a few other tips for playtime:
Follow toy manufacturer’s age suggestions when choosing toys or gifts.
Ask an older child to be the “facilitator” during a play date.
Most games are designed for children who are of similar age. Review the rules before beginning play.

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