Saturday, 18 April 2020

Top Tips for managing Play with different aged children

I decided to write this post after one of my Instagram followers asked me if I had any advice on managing play with children of different ages and different personalities. Like me, she has a 2 year old and a 5 year old and is finding that whilst the older child interacts positively with the play invitations she sets up, her 2 year old often throws objects at walls, bangs them together etc and sets off down a path of destruction. ( I should note here that this family also have a new baby and the older child is usually at school, but under the currently isolation policy they are now all at home together).

  toddler and older sibling playing side by side with activities in seperate trays

It's a common scenario, and I remember my eldest being very similar at aged 2 when his baby sister arrived and we were stuck at home in the summer holidays. The preschool/nursery routine is out of the window, the 1:1 time with the main carer is suddenly a thing of the past and the world of the toddler is suddenly very different and a little bit unsettling. Add in a need to be very active and burn off a lot of energy and it can be a real struggle to fulfill their needs. Many children will resort to destructive, aggressive or frustrating behaviour in order to gain what little attention they can, and also to manage their own feelings and emotions. 


Top Tips for managing Play with different aged children and multi age groups


Before we talk about how to manage play effectively, I think it's important to point out that for many children, particularly our youngest children who are still developing their social and emotional skills, change or stressful situations can bring about high levels of worry and anxiety that usually manifest into angry, destructive or violent behaviour. This isn't though choice - they just aren't developmentally ready to understand and articulate their feelings or process and display them in an appropriate way. (It's also worth looking into different 'schemas' that your child may be working through, for example, the "trajectory" schema can often lead to lots of throwing!)
Children need predictability and to feel some level of control, especially amidst uncertainty.

With this in mind, my first top tip would be...

Work on identifying and explaining feelings...


A very simple way of explaining how to do this appropriately would be, "see it, say it". Try to NOTICE your how your child is reacting or feeling and name it for them. Explain it to them. Validate their feelings so that they know this is okay, and then help them to respond appropriately. 

For example, " I can see that you are feeling upset, and this is making your body do angry things like throwing that toy. You are angry and upset because your sister took a toy, and you really wanted to play with it didn't you?...It's okay to feel upset and angry, but its not okay to do angry things. How could we make it better? Let's think together..."

If you would like some more information on how to set up a feelings and emotions area at home, have a look at my post ' how to set up a thinking and feelings station' with emotion dolls and an 'on the go' worry bag.

If you really put the work into validating and explaining feelings, this will underpin everything else you try to achieve when setting up play invitations for children at different stages of development and will benefit everybody.


My next tip, another one for laying the groundwork, would be to...


Work on turn-taking:

Often, when play is a struggle between children, this can be due to a power struggle. Children can be 'territorial' over their place spaces, their toys, or even the parental attention on offer. Incorporating  very simple 'my turn, your turn' games can help to establish appropriate play boundaries before they set off to explore independently. 

If you are dealing with young children, one of the best resources to help with this is a click clack car track. Spend some time modelling this activity using the words "my turn, now your turn" so that they really understand what this means. There isn't too much waiting with this activity as the cars move fast and then they get to have another go after waiting for a partner, so this is effective for young children. They will gain a good understanding of 'my turn, your turn' here and then this vocabulary can be used within other play scenarios to help them to build up their ability to wait and take turns. 

Other good ideas for 'quick' turn taking are:

  • sliding down a slide 
  • throwing a ball or a beanbag into a hoop or a bucket 
  • crawling through a tunnel 
  • completing an assault course or a chalk track

You can then build up to activities which require a little more waiting, such as:

  •  jumps on a trampoline 
  • turns with a bubble blower
  • going around a track on a bike or play car



Plan in extra bonding and connection time :

Carve out some special time together and encourage the natural 'feel good' scenarios such as cuddling, laughing or chatting and really listening. Having this 1:1 time with your child can increase feelings of security, self esteem and comfort which will help to support positive behaviour and feelings of belonging which can ease tensions and aggression.   


Support them :

Whether this is within a day to day activity that you know they can do well anyway, or just within play. Reassure them that you are always there to help so that they know they can turn to you if they start to lose control. Supervise well - its not always appropriate to expect a young child to just play alongside other children with ease - many children are just not developmentally ready. Careful supervision can help to redirect issues before they arise, and also gives you valuable information in terms of recognising WHY a certain behaviour may be being displayed. Sometimes we can be quick to blame the usual perpetrator without fully understanding the cause of the behaviour. Observing play scenarios can help you to identify any possible triggers.


Make older children aware and give them some tools and vocab to help :

Helping your older child to understand age limitations is incredibly valuable, not just for setting expectations as to how THEY play with younger children and making sure that they are using appropriate and safe resources and play ideas...but also in helping them to manage their own expectations with regards to the behaviour and abilities of their younger sibling. (This does not mean that you should expect older children to hand over toys etc just because their sibling is younger.)


Plan in a more structure if needed : 

For children who are really struggling with a new set-up and playing appropriately, they may need a 'new normal' putting into place. Whether this is a visual timetable of how you will structure your day, with some repeated events daily at a certain time (such as reading a book, taking part in a live play session online, or going out for a walk)...or the verbalisation of what is happening "now, next and then"  which can help to prepare and manage expectations and create a sense of stability.

Work on physical development and gross motor activities: 

A lot of pent up anger and frustration can be as a result of the need to burn off some energy and move their bodies. No one has energy like a toddler does, and they really do need to move their bodies! Help them to fulfill that need by planning in some of the following:


  • Obstacle course 
  • Chalk track
  • Dance time ( we like to do this in the kitchen!)
  • Jumping Jacks
  • Garden races
  • Riding a bike or scooter
  • Parachute play
  • Playing with ribbons on sticks
  • Silk Scarf waving
  • Rolypolys
  • Safe wrestling / play fighting / rough and tumble



Use inclusive play resources that appeal to different ages:

Choose resources and toys that can be used in open ended ways  so that they are appropriate for older and younger children with a variety of outcomes. Make sure that whatever the younger child is observing the older child doing within play, is also safe for them to take part in - younger children don't always understand why something is okay for  a sibling but not for them, which can lead to upset. 

Good resource examples include:




Plan in some destructive and messy play, which fulfills their need:

Give these emotions  and behaviours a space to 'be', by planning in activities which focus on making a mess and being destructive, or banging objects together such as:



(blog continues below image)


Encourage the older child to involve themselves in the younger child's play for a while:


 Children need the chance to bond with each other in the same way that they bond with adults. Encouraging an older sibling to get down to their level and go along with their play ideas can really help to validate their ideas and build up relationships. For example, if your younger child loves role play, is there a way that your older child could join in with the theme?


Set up your space for successful independent play:

Have resources stored or set out in an open plan way, so that children are able to take control and choose what they play with (a sense of control is REALLY important in managing feelings of self esteem). Make sure they are at child height. Remove (wherever possible) items, furniture or resources that you don't want children to explore and play with. Having to say 'no!' or 'stop!' a lot can cause a negative feeling within your home which will ultimately lead to a decline in behaviour. Help yourself to create positive scenarios by setting up your space safely for children to minimise any 'no' situations, and also give you something to redirect your child towards quickly and easily. Children who are able to play independently are often more able to play positively alongside other children without much support.

Have a look at our child-led playroom for open ended learning here, if you would like to see our set up.


Make sure you have enough equipment to go around:

Whether building blocks for block play, role play food items, tea party sets or colouring pencils...make sure there are enough to go around so that sharing does not immediately become an issue before play is underway. 

We sometimes use our Gratnells trays as a way of setting up a differentiated activity for both children (such as the main image of this post which has a kinetic sand activity in for each child) where they have their own separate resources within the same activity. This also works for arts and crafts, block play or messy play - where there may be parallel play occurring and you'd like to minimise any grievances around sharing resources.  


Find a special interest for your youngest child: 

Really think about the kind of play, resources and activities your child enjoys. Are they displaying any particular schemas at the moment?  Do they have any obsessions such as dinosaurs or trains....or perhaps they love to dive into your pots and pans?? Try to put something out that will really engage your child so that you can also give some time to your older child/children.


Save 'older activities' for when your youngest isn't involved :

Whether this is whilst they have a nap, or when you can get your other half to help play with them or take them for a walk. Spend that time focusing on more involved activities so that your older child does not feel resentful towards their sibling for having to miss out, and it also helps you to build up that special bond with them too. 


Model play yourself :

Sometimes, children just need to watch and learn  and be shown how to play appropriately. Set up a play scenario, whether role play or small world, that you will be taking part in and invite the children to join you. Use this time to model effective play behaviours such as turn taking, sharing, communicating effectively and being kind. If it goes a bit wrong, talk about and explain how you are feeling and how you are going to stay calm etc rather than get cross and angry. 


Finally, manage your own expectations:

As children grow and develop they become better at playing co-operatively without support. Accept that at this short stage in their lives, you're going to need to step in an awful lot and be more hands on with support whilst they are learning and developing those areas within their brains which relate to self control, impulsivity, emotions and behaviours. If it all gets a bit much, pop the kettle on and get the ipad out for them for a bit! They can't learn calm play from a frustrated parent, so make sure you are taking care of yourself too xx

Would you like some play ideas for when you are stuck at home with the children?


You can also watch some of my play and learning activities over on YouTube here:




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