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.
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:
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!