Kids and play- the challenges!

What are the six main types of problems that arise when kids are playing together? Dr. Katie Heathershaw, Fisher-Price Play IQ™ Expert & Paediatrician explains.

Hitting, pushing, biting

As your toddler starts to assert their individuality, express their likes and dislikes and communicate with the world around them they still have yet to learn skills such as self-control, waiting and turn taking. Aggressive behaviours such as hitting, pushing, snatching, kicking and biting may communicate in ‘actions’ what they can’t yet say in words, for example “I’m frustrated”, “My turn”, “Get out of my way” or “I want that one!”.

Some toddlers are naturally quieter and more placid whilst others are more spirited and ‘big reactors’; these children may have more difficulty managing their emotions and act out aggressively more generally from the age of about 18 months to three years.

If your toddler is a big reactor it’s very important to understand and respect their temperament and not have unrealistic expectations. For example, toddlers under the age of two cannot be expected to successfully share and negotiate with their peers just yet as they still think they are the centre of the universe! If you are meeting with other parents and toddlers make sure you are nearby to facilitate, encourage, praise and troubleshoot – this is far preferable than hoping for the best and having the play date end in tears. Anticipate situations that may be challenging for your child to try and prevent aggressive behaviour occurring in the first place.

If you are having problems with aggressive behaviour try to observe the pattern. Consider where is it occurring? What takes place immediately before? How do you react? By bearing in mind that behaviour is a form of communication, you can start to figure out what your child is telling you with this behaviour. Sometimes your reaction can inadvertently reinforce the behavior, for example if you immediately exclaim in shock, pick up your child and move away, that is giving them a lot of attention! Instead speak in a low tone and firm voice to tell them, for example, “No hitting” and physically take your child’s hands to reinforce the message.

It is also important to help your child understand their own feelings and behavior which you can do by relaying it back to them: “You’re mad because you want that truck that Luke has”. Then try to model an alternative response by adding: “Say ‘Can I have a turn please’”. Again, it is important to have realistic expectations in line with your child’s developmental stage. If your child is really upset and angry then a brief distraction (without ignoring their feelings) may be in order: “You’re really mad, let’s bring out the tickle monster” and give them a big tickle (humour is a great tool!). 

Aggressive behaviour usually settles as a child’s verbal communication, empathy and emotion regulation skills progress. If you are worried about more serious or persistent aggressive behaviour you should speak to your Doctor or Health Nurse.

Difficulty sharing

This is a universal one as nearly all toddlers will have difficulty sharing to begin with! It is important to understand that toddlers think they are the centre of the world and that everything belongs to them! A particularly challenging time can be the arrival of a new sibling, especially when that sibling becomes mobile and starts ‘messing’ with your toddler’s toys, block towers etc. Whilst this can result in conflict and tantrums it is also an excellent opportunity for your children to learn about cooperative play. As in the section about aggressive behaviour above, it is important to acknowledge your toddler’s feelings, for example by noting: “That’s frustrating when little Ben knocks over your tower”. Then help them to see their sibling’s perspective: “He thinks it’s so cool and wants to play too”. Then offer an alternative: “Can you find something else for Ben to play with instead?” Respect their right of ‘ownership’ by giving your child the option to put some toys away and out of reach of little siblings or visiting friends. Encourage turn taking and sharing with supervised play, lots of praise, hugs, high fives and even stickers or stamps to really reinforce the message.

Easily bored / needs constant parent ‘entertainment’

Some families I see feel like they have a house full of whizz-bang toys and activities yet their little one is always underfoot wanting their attention! This can be particularly challenging when a parent is hoping that their child will play contentedly while they get on with some household chores or try to work from home.

Some toddlers are remarkably happy in their own company and will play and explore independently without a lot of input from their parent(s), although even these children will prefer to have their parent close by to check in with visually or verbally every now and again. Most toddlers however will still be pretty dependent on their parent or carer and many won’t be able to sustain play for very long by themselves. So the question is how do you manage the competing demands of a busy toddler and all the household chores? 

The first thing to remember is that your toddler doesn’t know the difference between ‘play’ and ‘housework’ and from about 15 months will start to enjoy imitating household chores, so by all means put them to work! When you are sorting and folding washing, sweeping, chopping vegetables (a plastic knife please!), dusting, etc. let your little one work alongside you. Save the chores that they can’t be involved with for nap time.

Once the chores are done try to spend some dedicated play time with your child, letting them lead the play whilst you follow. The more your toddler develops their play skills, the more they should be able to play independently. Unstructured, child-led play is the most important kind but that doesn’t mean you have to stay home. A walk to the local park (collecting ‘nature items along the way) or a trip to cafe or library (many have story time for toddlers) may be just what you both need to break up the day and generate some fresh play ideas.

To prevent your child getting bored with their toy selection try not to have everything on view at once. Put away most of their toys and leave out only a small selection that you rotate each week. Search for age specific ideas of activities and toys to keep your toddler engaged.

Limited attention span

This again is a very common observation. It is important to note that attentional skills do develop with age and most two year olds don’t focus for very long however there are individual variations which are profiled by the Fisher-Price’s Play IQ™ personas (visit to find out more). Your toddler may have a ‘Little Legend’ Play IQ persona where they love to move and climb but their listening and focusing may not be so well developed. Or they may have the ‘Learner Lover’ Play IQ persona which means they focus quite well for books and puzzles even at this young age.

Sometimes I see families who have a ‘flitter’, a child who flits from one thing to the next without focusing for any length of time. When the parent tries to read a story the child either runs off or quickly flips the pages to the end of the book. The question I sometimes then get asked is “

Does my child have ADHD?” We don’t diagnose ADHD in toddlers as many toddlers have these behaviours and most of them improve with respect to their attention span as they get older! In the meantime, enjoy your child’s energy and exuberance. Gradually build their attention span by introducing highly engaging books such as those with push buttons and lift-the-flap elements and alternate activities requiring sustained attention (e.g. a puzzle or building blocks) with brief bursts of physical activity (e.g. running or bouncing on a trampoline).

Obsessed with TV/iPad/phone

A very frequent question I get asked from parents these days is “Is it really so bad to let my toddler watch TV or use the iPad?” My response (and that of influential and reputable bodies like the American Academy of Pediatrics) is to recommend no screens for those under the age of three years. This is not because of concerns about harmful content but because the passive nature of viewing screens at this young age does nothing good for a child’s development and takes up time that could be better spent actively engaged in play and interacting with parents or siblings. As we all know, screens (or more specifically, what is on them) are highly diverting. They will grab your little one’s attention away from anything else in their environment however what’s on the screen is limited to visual and auditory content; it’s not 3D, there's no smell, you can’t taste it, you can’t touch and feel it and most importantly of all, when your toddler reacts in delight to what he has seen and heard there is no corresponding response. It is a passive medium and as babies and toddlers do not yet know the difference between what is real and what is on screen this is a problem. The viewing experience can also result in sensory overload for some young children which they cannot regulate.

The take home message is don’t introduce phones or iPads to toddlers and preschoolers. Also try to be aware of your own behaviour when it comes to technology: what does your toddler see you modelling? Do you pull out your phone to check your email and Facebook at every spare moment? Try to model reading a book, newspaper or magazine instead.

Reluctant to join in

Your child may be a ‘Crowd Favourite’ or ‘Natural Charmer’ with high social and emotional play IQ (take a look at the Fisher-Price’s Play IQ™ Quiz to find out more about your child’s Play IQ persona). Or they may be reluctant to join in at social gatherings or child care, which is another common play concern I hear. We are all born with different temperaments. The Australian Temperament Project found that differences in temperament are evident in infancy and persist into childhood and beyond. A ‘slow to warm up’ or shy temperament may mean that your child will be initially reluctant to join in new situations. If this is coupled with separation anxiety, your little one may seem to cling to you even more tenaciously!

It is very important to understand and respect your child’s temperament and feelings. Try to prepare your child briefly for a new situation by showing them some photos of where you are going and who will be there. Allow your child some time to warm up and if possible ask other family members to do the same (the slow to warm up child does not need a loud uncle coming up with a booming greeting and bear hug!). Try to engage your child in a transition activity whilst you remain close by and let them join in at their own pace. If others are asking when your child will join in avoid the use of labelling words like “shy” as this can often become the way your child sees themselves. Instead say “Ethan will come and join in a bit later, he’s just working on this activity with me first”.

If your child is really struggling with their social skills or with separation anxiety that is not settling, consult your doctor or health nurse.

This article was published in association with Fisher Price.


Under 5

Copyright © 2019 All Rights reserved.