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Playing with One, Playing with Two

Sarah from Good Enough Mum blog suggested that I write a post about playing with more than one child and also provided me with a great link on the importance of one-on-one play. I thought the two ideas fit together really well, so I decided to combine them in one post.

The importance of one-on-one play

The article that Sarah shared with me is called The Importance of One-on-One Time. The article explains that our kids need our undivided attention. Not all of the time, but definitely frequently. The time of one-on-one time that is really valuable is child-led one-on-one time. Let your child guide the conversation, choose the games, lead the activities. This isn't about you choosing something and then doing it with your child. It is about letting your child choose and lead. These concepts are a really great companion to some of the chapters in Playful Parenting, which I reviewed a few days ago.

The article also gives a list of 4 signs that your child needs your undivided attention:

1. He is deliberately disobedient. This may indicate that he's feeling ignored. Floor time shows him that he doesn't need to act up to get noticed. It also helps him feel cared for and valued while you try to learn if there's a deeper reason for his disobedience.

2. She clings, whines, or cries frequently. This may indicate insecurity. Half an hour of undivided attention each day helps to reassure your child that she is safe and loved.

3. He hits, screams, and shows other signs of anger. Floor time provides a forum for him to express anger more appropriately (for example, through pretend play or conversation).

4. She exhibits difficulty making developmental transitions, such as moving from crib to bed or starting school. Growing up is hard, and such challenges can make a child doubt her coping abilities. Floor time helps her relax and gain confidence.

So often parents see these signs and go straight to exacting punishments, such as a time out, when really what the child so desperately needs is the opposite: a dedicated time-in.

The article provides some general tips for making one-on-one time a priority and also gives some ideas on what to expect or try with different age groups.

Juggling play with two children

Sarah asked me how I manage to play with two children of different age groups. She said:
My four-year-old is into doing jigsaw puzzles or playing floor games, while my sixteen-month-old likes toddling around exploring the world and picking up everything she sees to try to eat. Trying to play with both of them together is a nightmare – all Katie wants to do is grab Jamie’s jigsaw pieces. But neither of them is really at a stage where they can get the concept of sharing in games or playing nicely together or taking turns so that one of them waits while I play with the other one and then gets their turn a little later. (I know you’d normally expect a four-year-old to be starting to get those points, but Jamie is on the autistic spectrum and hence much more immature with a lot of the personal-social stuff.) I know your two are a few months older, so I’d love to hear your tips.

It is hard trying to play with two at once. Really hard sometimes. In fact, I hinted at that in my post on the Tortoise and the Hare, because mine or not only at two different ages, but are just such polar opposites in terms of their approach even when they do settle on the same activity.

I'll start maybe by repeating a few of the tips that are at the bottom of the article that Sarah shared with me, because I think they are great and are a bit part of how I handle this issue:

  • Capitalize on your kids' different schedules. Tumble on the floor with your toddler while your kindergartner's at school. Work on a jigsaw puzzle with your preschooler during the baby's nap. Have evening floor time with a preteen after younger siblings have gone to bed.

  • Press your partner into service. While you're out Rollerblading with your 7-year-old, perhaps Dad could go to the playground or the park with your toddler.

  • Take turns--30 minutes for Tammy, then 30 for Tom, then 30 for Tim--rotating who goes first. During each child's turn, give the other kids the choice of playing independently or joining in the activity. Siblings who opt to participate must take direction from the designated leader.

  • Try group floor time. What if your son wants to act out a scene from Star Wars and your daughter is clamoring for dinosaur play? Encourage them to combine their themes: "Luke Skywalker Saves Planet Apatosaurus" or "T. rex Takes on Darth Vader."


Some of the things that have worked for us include:

  • Partnership: We have three people (me, my husband and my mom) that spend a lot of time with the kids. Because there are the three of us, we can "divide and conquer" so that both kids get the opportunity to do the things that they love and to have one-on-one time with everyone. We are not all there all of the time, but we ensure that enough of the week gets covered by two people that on most days each child gets some one-on-one time.

  • Making some toys off-limits: When I do have both kids on my own, there are certain things that we do not play with. We don't even attempt to get out the things that my son would like to play with that my daughter would end up destroying. My son has the option to play with those things on his own in his room or to wait until he gets some one-on-one time (e.g. another adult is there to watch our daughter or she is napping) to play with those toys and games.

  • Go outside: I find when we are constrained by "toys" that are very often age-specific, it is difficult. But if we head outdoors, we can usually find things to do that both of them enjoy. They both like to play with balls, go on swings, roll around in the grass, throw rocks into the lake, and so on. They are at different stages of development on those different tasks, but it is usually more manageable than the frustration that comes with indoor toys.

  • Teaching: My son loves teaching my daughter how to do things. There are games that he is not interested in playing on his own or with us, but he is more than willing to teach her how to do it. Not all of the time, but often enough that we can get away with playing with her toys if we actively engage him in the role of the mentor or teacher.

  • Preschool: I have all the respect in the world for people that homeschool, but I couldn't do it. It exhausts me if I spend a whole weekend playing with both kids all of the time. Having our son in preschool has been a huge success for us. He gets to stay busy with friends and activities that are age appropriate for him and my daughter can do things that are age-specific and age-appropriate for her at home. It means that we have to focus more on ensuring that our son gets enough one-on-one time with mom and dad when he is at home, but he really enjoys and benefits from school and it keeps everyone sane.

This is an area that continues to be a challenge for us, so thank you Sarah for giving me the chance to focus on it for a little bit. I hope the ideas help you too.

This post is part of the Carnival of Play on the PhD in Parenting blog. Just one more day to go! Expect a few wrap-up posts tomorrow...
« Final Thoughts on Importance of Play - Carnival Posts (Part 7) | Main | Baby Play! Carnival Posts (Part 6) »

Reader Comments (15)

[...] See original here: Playing with One, Playing with Two | PhD in Parenting [...]

These are all terrific tips. As a counselor I would routinely "prescribe" one-on-one, child-directed play with my overwrought, exhausted, and worried parents. Even setting aside 15 minutes PER WEEK, PER CHILD warranted incredible results. Kids felt connected, important, and loved and therefore acted out less, and parents got a chance to slow down themselves and see their kids in a different, kinder light (because if they were in counseling with me, chances were it was because of behavior issues with their child).

The key was always slowing down, letting the child feel as though they were sharing something special/unique with their parent, and having boundaries (i.e., no other sibling could barge in on that special time slot).

Another thing we would recommend, is to have a special toy box just for this kind of play. These toys were off limits any other time of day to everyone. It helped define the time for the parents and the kids and added an extra element of magic for the little ones.

There is, in my opinion, nothing more important to a child than a parent's undivided attention. Nothing.

I love all your tips. Great, great, great (as usual)!

This article is great. One on one time is important all through childhood. I wrote a bit about it here http://typical-ramblings.blogspot.com/2009/04/play-and-your-tween.html with a link back to your post.

April 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKrista

Fantastic post. I find it very difficult to play with both my children at the same time. My oldest son is 3 and a half, and my youngest son is 15 months old.

I find that sometimes my oldest son feels 'left out', or at least, gets upset that I spent so my time with the baby... and that make me feel very bad. Of course, as often as I can, I spend time with my oldest son, one-on-one. If I notice, like you mentioned above, a change in his behaviour, like anger, etc... I do NOT give him a time-out - I give him a time-in, like you so nicely put. I could write a whole post about this, which I think I will in the next few days. Because there is much to say on the topic. It's hard, though, splitting the time between the two kids. And of course, I try really hard to play with them together. This works great, half the time... ;)

April 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLoukia

As a mother of three closely-spaced children (7, 5.5 and 4), it's been absolutely critical (albeit draining for me at times) to ensure everyone gets their time in with me. It definitely gets easier as they get older.

When they were younger, it wasn't always easy to get that one-on-one play time at home. So at least once a month, I would try to schedule a "date" with each child to go somewhere, their choice and their dad watched the other two. It's wasn't always a specific "play" date, but often we'd go to the pet store to look at the animals, or the library to read books or play with the puppets they had there, or the bookstore to browse the kids section and usually ended up going out to lunch or to get an ice cream treat.

Now that they are older, and the two older ones do have differing school schedules, we still find time to do one-on-one things, only it's a little easier. The school schedules make it easier. My youngest doesn't have to share me with anyone for 2-4 hours a day.

There are, however, special circumstances where 15 minutes of undivided attention per week is not enough (though it depends on the child's temperament). For a highly sensitive child or a child who has sensory regulation disorders or anxiety disorders like my 5.5 year old, it needs to be 15-20 minutes a day, not just a week to feel secure enough to move on to independent play. It wasn't always like this when she was younger and more anxious (and more prone to melting down). But time and maturity are helping. Keeping up with daily doses of one-on-one play or face-to-face time and physical closeness (sitting in my lap being read to), or just snuggling together talking fills her tank so that she can feel secure.

The other two don't need that quite so much, which is why it's imperative not to forget them. When you have a special needs child, it's so important to not forget the other children.

April 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKC

These are great tips! I never before have really thought about the fact that those behaviors could easily stem from the child needing more interaction and attention. It's nice to have my eyes opened =)

Preschool has been fabulous for us, too. My 4-year-old loves it, even more so since the baby came. And we're really happy with the school we chose. Plus it gives me one-on-one time with my baby that I can't get any other way. It's really win-win for us.

April 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

It's not intuitively obvious. I decided to post further on my blog about it (here - http://growinginpeace.wordpress.com/2009/04/20/why-one-on-one-time-works-better-for-behavioral-issues/), because, for us, the only way to see the child beneath the behavior was to keep her closer, not push her away.

April 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKC

@KC: Thanks for the follow-up post. It is great! I'm off to read the post about what worked for your daughter too...

April 20, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

[...] Playing with One, Playing with Two: A post on the importance of one-on-one play time for each child and ideas on how to play successfully with two of them at a time. [...]

Thank you so very much. I couldn't have been inspired to write it without this carnival post. I never would have thought that by accidentally coming across your blog that I would have been so moved and get a fresh perspective and renewed hope. Needless to say, life with an anxious child is complex, but it helps to know that our story might encourage other parents out there.

April 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKC

[...] your family doesn’t have to be as scary as you think it might be. I’ve given people tips on playing with two kids of different ages at the same time. I’ve even written posts talking about how much I love watching to two of them [...]

This is so interesting. I had never thought about how to give two kids at such different ages one on one time.
I had noticed that my daughter (20 mts) gets grumpy when she doesn't get enough attention. I'm glad it's normal.

September 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristy

A great and informative post - thank you. It reminded me to address the root cause of one child who has started whining quite a lot lately is to spend quality one-on-one time playing with just her. We've been so over-scheduled and "traveling as in a family pack" all the time that I can easily forget that they all need to spend time w. me one-on-one. Great reminder, thanks.

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAdo

Hi -

We just wanted to let you know we found this post to be very helpful and included it in our list of our favorite posts from last week. Thanks.


April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDana

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