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Sibling play: Games for Toddlers and Preschoolers to Enjoy Together

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Helping our little ones to play together is a powerful way to nurture sibling relationships and to make home fun, but for small children at different developmental stages it isn’t always easy to find activities everyone can enjoy.


An older and a younger toddler, or a toddler and a preschooler are tricky combinations for family play. One child is likely to be mouthing and fascinated by destroying things just when the other is beginning to want more challenging or complex play. But there are many ways to play together at this time, especially by keeping activities fun and active.

Sibling play goes through many stages, and will vary depending on the age gap between your children.

There’s a 17-month gap between my children, and like many mothers of two-under-two my main challenges in the early months were tiredness and combining long breastfeeds for the baby with toddler care.

Honestly, at that time, play was not my top priority, but nor was it that difficult. My older son and I played when the baby slept, or when he settled to watch from his blanket. Things got challenging when the baby got mobile, especially once he could pull up.

Just when my toddler started to put together a puzzle or set up his farm pieces carefully, his baby brother cruised over to cause chaos. Play dough and paint would soon end up in little brother’s mouth, and any game with small parts or complex rules was a no-no.

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So how did we solve the problem? First, I kept my youngest napping twice a day as long as I could. That morning nap was the time my older son and I played together with anything that needed concentration or safety precautions.

I also put puzzles and small world toys for my older son on the dining table, where he could play undisturbed. These were temporary solutions, but that’s fine because the problem was temporary too.

Most of all, I looked for ways for my sons to play together. Here are some of the games we enjoyed:

Movement Songs

A beloved activity in childcare settings for good reason! Songs with actions are a great way to entertain baby and toddler, or groups of toddlers of all ages. You can find hundreds of ideas and lyrics online, including The Wheels on the Bus, The Eensy Weensy Spider, Zoom Zoom Zoom and Sleeping Bunnies.

Bubbles, Balls, Balloons

Children who are just starting to walk usually love bubbles, and older toddlers do to, so this is an easy and fun way to play together. Challenge older toddlers to clap bubbles, stamp on them, or pop them with an elbow! Rolling balls and batting balloons can also bring young siblings together.

Animal Actions

Pretending to be different animals appeals to toddlers of all ages. Even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense to one-year-olds, they’ll enjoy stomping and bellowing for the fun of it!

Play outside

Playing in the playground or the garden with two toddlers, especially ones who still mouth, can be challenging. But your kids will love the fresh air and chance to run and climb. And it helps them sleep, which we all know is a huge bonus!

Dancing

We often dance to classical music and try out all sorts of actions, such as waving, jumping, spinning, clapping, going slowly or fast and so on. Describing what we do and giving instructions helps to build my little ones’ vocabularies.

Story time

Read together! This is one of the easiest and best things to do with toddlers. Our days include lots of movement and outside play, so my boys are usually happy to sit together at other times with a pile of books.

Process art

Art with two-under-three gets messy, but what I love about art at this age is it’s so simple. Toddlers enjoy scribbling and trying out crayons or paint or dough; there’s no need to fuss about the end result. While my youngest was still mouthing we usually did art at the table, with the youngest in a highchair. I’d keep him occupied with a snack or a safe art material, or combine the two and let him finger-paint with applesauce. At first our art time was short and sweet; it became longer and more adventurous as the children grew.

Pretend Play

If your preschooler enjoys pretend play, you might find your toddler is happy to join in even if it’s all a bit above them cognitively. Enthusiasm can sweep them along. We love playing picnics, doctors, rockets, dinosaurs, and most of all pirates! One of my youngest’s first words was ‘treasure’, declared very seriously while holding up a cushion!

Flashcards

This one’s controversial, since I know lots of parents and educators hate flashcards, but many children enjoy playing with them, and they are easy to share. Toddlers like posting things, so try making a slit in a cardboard box and letting your children post the cards. I built language learning into this by asking my kids to choose a card to post and name. With my oldest I asked questions like ‘Which one lives in water?’; with the youngest I might ask, ‘Which one do you want, hat or dog?’

Playing with toddlers together may be challenging at times, but you’re sure to have lots of fun. Now at ages 3 and 2, some of the difficulties of sibling play I mention above are over for us and the youngest can join in with many more types of activity. The boys play together constantly, often without me, and even invent games of their own. It’s not always peaceful, but I try to remember that even the conflicts help them to learn and mature! Seeing their friendship grow has been an enormous and unexpected joy for me. The hard work is definitely worth it!

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As mamas, we naturally become the magic-makers for our families. We sing the songs that make the waits seem shorter, dispense the kisses that help boo-boos hurt less, carry the seemingly bottomless bags of treasures, and find ways to turn even the most hum-drum days into something memorable.

Sometimes it's on a family vacation or when exploring a new locale, but often it's in our own backyards or living rooms. Here are 12 ways to create magical moments with kids no matter where your adventures take you.


1. Keep it simple

Mary Poppins may be practically perfect in every way, but―trust us―your most magical memories don't require perfection. Spend the morning building blanket forts or break out the cookie cutters to serve their sandwich in a fun shape and you'll quickly learn that, for kids, the most magical moments are often the simplest.

2. Get on their level

Sometimes creating a memorable moment can be as easy as getting down on the floor and playing with your children. So don't be afraid to get on your hands and knees, to swing from the monkey bars, or turn watching your favorite movie into an ultimate snuggle sesh.

3. Reimagine the ordinary

As Mary says, "the cover is not the book." Teach your child to see the world beyond initial impressions by encouraging them to imagine a whole new world as you play―a world where the laundry basket can be a pirate ship or a pile of blankets can be a castle.

4. Get a little messy

Stomp in muddy puddles. Break out the finger paint. Bake a cake and don't worry about frosting drips on the counter. The messes will wait, mama. For now, let your children―and yourself―live in these moments that will all too soon become favorite memories.

5. Throw out the plan

The best-laid plans...are rarely the most exciting. And often the most magical moments happen by accident. So let go of the plan, embrace the unexpected, and remember that your child doesn't care if the day goes according to the schedule.

6. Take it outside

There's never a wrong time of year to make magic outside. Take a stroll through a spring rainstorm, catch the first winter snowflakes on your tongue, or camp out under a meteor shower this summer. Mother Nature is a natural at creating experiences you'll both remember forever.

7. Share your childhood memories

Chances are if you found it magical as a child, then your kids will too. Introduce your favorite books and movies (pro tip: Plan a double feature with an original like Mary Poppins followed with the sequel, Mary Poppins Returns!) or book a trip to your favorite family vacation spot from the past. You could even try to recreate photos from your old childhood with your kids so you can hang on to the memory forever.

8. Just add music

Even when you're doing something as humdrum as prepping dinner or tidying up the living room, a little music has a way of upping the fun factor. Tell Alexa to cue up your favorite station for a spontaneous family dance party or use your child's favorite movie soundtrack for a quick game of "Clean and Freeze" to pick up toys at the end of the day.

9. Say "yes"

Sometimes it can feel like you're constantly telling your child "no." While it's not possible to grant every request (sorry, kiddo, still can't let you drive the car!), plan a "yes" day for a little extra magic. That means every (reasonable) request gets an affirmative response for 24 hours. Trust us―they'll never forget it.

10. Let them take the lead

A day planned by your kid―can you imagine that? Instead of trying to plan what you think will lead to the best memories, put your kid in the driver's seat by letting them make the itinerary. If you have more than one child, break up the planning so one gets to pick the activity while the other chooses your lunch menu. You just might end up with a day you never expected.

11. Ask more questions

Odds are, your child might not remember every activity you plan―but they will remember the moments you made them feel special. By focusing the conversation on your little one―their likes, dislikes, goals, or even just craziest dreams―you teach them that their perspective matters and that you are their biggest fan.

12. Turn a bad day around

Not every magical moment will start from something good. But the days where things don't go to plan can often turn out to be the greatest memories, especially when you find a way to turn even a negative experience into a positive memory. So don't get discouraged if you wake up to rain clouds on your beach day or drop the eggs on the floor before breakfast―take a cue from Mary Poppins and find a way to turn the whole day a little "turtle."

Mary Poppins Returns available now on Digital & out on Blue-ray March 19! Let the magic begin in your house with a night where everything is possible—even the impossible ✨

Spring is officially here and if you're looking for a way to celebrate the change in the season, why not treat the kids to some ice cream, mama?

DQ locations across the country (but not the ones in malls) are giving away free small vanilla cones today, March 20! So pack up the kids and get to a DQ near you!

And if you can't make it today, from March 21 through March 31, DQ's got a deal where small cones will be just 50 cents (but you have to download the DQ mobile app to claim that one).

Another chain, Pennsylvania-based Rita's Italian Ice is also dishing up freebies today, so if DQ's not your thing you can grab a free cup of Italian ice instead!

We're so excited that ice cream season is here and snowsuit season is behind us. Just a few short weeks and the kids will be jumping through the sprinkler!

Welcome back, spring! We've missed you!

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The woman who basically single-handedly taught the world to embrace vulnerability and imperfection is coming to Netflix and we cannot wait to binge whatever Brené Brown's special will serve up because we'll probably be better people after watching it.

It drops on April 19 and is called Brené Brown: The Call to Courage. If it has even a fraction of the impact of her books or the viral Ted talk that made her a household name, it's going to be life and culture changing.

Announcing the special on Instagram Brown says she "cannot believe" she's about to be "breaking some boundaries over at Netflix" with the 77-minute special.

Netflix describes the special as a discussion of "what it takes to choose courage over comfort in a culture defined by scarcity, fear and uncertainty" and it sounds exactly like what we need right now.

April 19 is still pretty far away though, so if you need some of Brown's wisdom now, check out her books on Amazon or watch (or rewatch) the 2010 Ted Talk that put her—and our culture's relationship with vulnerability and shame—in the national spotlight.

The power of vulnerability | Brené Brown

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If Marie Kondo's Netflix show got people tidying up, Brown's Netflix special is sure to be the catalyst for some courageous choices this spring.

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My husband and I recently had a date night that included being away from our son overnight for the first time since he was born three years ago (but don't let your heads run away with a fantasy—we literally slept because we were exhausted #thisiswhatwecallfunnow). It was a combination of a late night work event, a feeling that we had to do something just for the two of us, and simple convenience. It would have taken hours to get home from the end of a very long day when we could just check into a hotel overnight and get home early the next day.

But before that night, I fretted about what to do. How would childcare work? No one besides me or my husband has put our son to bed, and we have never not been there when he wakes up in the morning.

Enter: Grandma.

I knew if there was any chance of this being successful, the only person that could pull it off is one of my son's favorite people—his grandmother. Grammy cakes. Gramma. We rely so much on these extended support systems to give us comfort and confidence as parents and put our kids at ease. Technically, we could parent without their support, but I'm so glad we don't have to.

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So as we walked out the door, leaving Grandma with my son for one night, I realized how lucky we are that she gets it...

She gets it because she always comes bearing delicious snacks. And usually a small toy or crayons in her bag for just the right moment when it's needed.

She gets it because she comes with all of the warmth and love of his parents but none of the baggage. None of the first time parent jitters and all of the understanding that most kids just have simple needs: to eat, play and sleep.

She gets it because she understands what I need too. The reassurance that my baby will be safe. And cared for.

She gets it because she's been in my shoes before. Decades ago, she was a nervous new mama too and felt the same worries. She's been exactly where we are.

She gets it because she shoos us away as we nervously say goodbye, calling out cheerfully, "Have fun, I've got this." And I know that she does.

She gets it because she will get down on the floor with him to play Legos—even though sometimes it's a little difficult to get back up.

She gets it because she will fumble around with our AppleTV—so different from her remote at home—to find him just the right video on Youtube that he's looking for.

She gets it because she diligently takes notes when we go through the multi-step bedtime routine that we've elaborately concocted, passing no judgment, and promising that she'll follow along as best as she can.

She gets it because she'll break the routine and lay next to him in bed when my son gets upset, singing softly in his ear until she sees his eyelids droop heavy and finally fall asleep.

She gets it because she'll text us to let us know when he's fallen asleep because she knows we'll be wondering.

She gets it because just like our son trusts us as his mom and dad, Grandma is his safe space. My son feels at ease with her—and that relaxes me, too.

She gets it because when we come home from our "big night out" the house will be clean. Our toddler's play table that always has some sort of sticky jelly residue on it will be spotless. The dishwasher empty. (Side note: She is my hero.)

She gets it because she shows up whenever we ask. Even when it means having to rearrange her schedule. Even when it means she has to sleep in our home instead of her own.

She gets it because even though she has her own life, she makes sure to be as involved in ours as she can. But that doesn't mean she gives unsolicited advice. It means that she's there. She comes to us or lets us come to her. Whenever we need her.

She gets it because she takes care of us, too. She's there to chat with at the end of a long day. To commiserate on how hard motherhood and working and life can be, but to also gently remind me, "These are the best days."

After every time Grandma comes over, she always leaves a family that feels so content. Fulfilled by her presence. The caretaking and nourishment (mental and food-wise) and warmth that accompanies her.

We know this is a privilege. We know we're beyond lucky that she is present and wants to be involved and gets it. We know that sometimes life doesn't work out like this and sometimes Grandma lives far away or is no longer here, or just doesn't get it. So we hold on. And appreciate every moment.

As Grandma leaves, I hug her tight and tell her, "I can't thank you enough. We couldn't have done this without you." Because we can't. And we wouldn't want to.

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My husband and I found out that our daughter Penny had Down Syndrome two hours after she was born, and we shared the same instinct. We wanted to run away. Within minutes, I had the route planned out from the hospital room to my grandparents' summer cottage, three hours north, at the end of a secluded dirt road that would be abandoned in the wintertime. No matter that the cottage had no insulation against the December cold. It represented a familiar and safe place that would take me far away from everyone else, and I wanted to get there as quickly as possible.

For years, the memory of that desire haunted me, until I finally realized that every time I had envisioned our escape, I envisioned us as a new family of three. In other words, I wanted, desperately, to run away from the doctors who were predicting a life of difficulty and hardship, from the nurses who I imagined whispering about our situation, and even from friends and family who, I suspected, just wouldn't know what to say or how to think about us as anymore. I didn't want to run away from Penny. I wanted to run away from everyone else.

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And I wanted to run away from the future. I was scared of the labels that had all of a sudden been added to our family. I was scared of therapy and specialists and perhaps most of all, special education. I was scared that Penny wouldn't learn, wouldn't make friends, that school would be a source of stress rather than a community in which she could flourish.

We didn't run away. Looking back on it, there were some reasons to fear. People still use words about kids with disabilities as jokes and slurs. In Penny's short lifetime, that list includes everyone from high government officials to TIME magazine to high school kids walking past me on the street. And plenty of people still see Down syndrome as a source of suffering or assume that Penny's life will be impoverished as a result of her extra chromosome.

But I've also found a host of people who want to see Penny succeed, and if there is any place that she has been accepted and supported it has been at school.

It is six and a half years later, and we just moved to a new town. A few days back, Penny and I visited her new school. She stuck out her hand to introduce herself to the women who work in the front office. We noted the fresh green and blue paint on the walls. And we met Penny's two teachers, one of whom has training specifically to support students with special needs. If first grade is anything like kindergarten, Penny will thrive. She will make friends and read chapter books out loud and squirm her way through art class and yearn to grow tall enough and strong enough to do the monkey bars all by herself.

Forty years ago, Penny might have been denied access to a free public education. Forty years ago, we might have been advised to institutionalize her upon birth. But in recent years, parents, teachers, and legislators have worked to ensure a place for kids like Penny in our nation's classrooms. It isn't always easy or pretty. Plenty of kids still suffer the injustice of unequal resources, abusive classroom aides, the social ostracism that can come from peers and teachers as a result of their disabilities. But the doors are open to them, at least in legal terms. And countless families can attest to the value of including kids with special needs in our classrooms, both for the kids themselves and for their peers.

This morning, our whole family walked down our new street to wait for the bus. We stood alongside four other kids from our neighborhood, and when the bus finally arrived, Penny raced to board it, hand in hand with a third-grader who volunteered to be her buddy.

Six years ago, I wanted to run away with my little girl bundled up in her receiving blanket to keep her protected from the world of Individualized Education Plans and reading assessments and behavioral modifications. Today, with gratitude, I watched my little girl run away from me.

Originally posted on HuffPost.

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