Should my child play with children his own age?

All young children, even those under a year old, love to be around other children. When children one and one-half years old and younger play together, they usually get along well. They play side-by-side, independently engaged but enjoying each other’s company, and there are few arguments over sharing. Occasional disagreements pass quickly because these young children can be distracted easily.

By the time children are two or three years old, however, playtime is full of arguments for playmates of the same age. They struggle with each other over possessions, sharing, and autonomy, and constantly shout, “That’s mine!” A parent often has a difficult time watching children this age play together. They don’t pay attention to each other’s needs and don’t give in without fighting. When children turn four, they do get along better, although there’s often a streak of competitiveness as each tries to exert power.

Play is generally much smoother when children of mixed ages play together. A group made up of two- to five-year-olds will struggle less because each child is at a different developmental stage with different needs. A younger child will watch and imitate an older one, asking for help with games and tasks and getting information. An older child, who is less possessive, will give in to the younger ones, offering help and leading games.

Although parents are usually comfortable when their young child plays with an older friend, they’re not as sure when their older child plays with a younger one. Parents may feel that he will be bored with younger children or will be brought down to their level. But a five-year-old playing with three-year-olds will stimulate himself, depending on the activities he’s involved in. He’ll play elaborate games with the simple toys available, lead a complex game, or create his own arts and crafts projects. He might enjoy the chance to play again with toys he’s outgrown. And he may feel good playing around younger children because he can be helpful and knowledgeable and direct his friends’ play: “Let’s put the blocks here and build a castle.” “The puzzle piece goes there.” “Do you want to hold my hamster? Be gentle, he has fragile bones.” His own confidence will be boosted when he can teach and lead.

Sometimes there are problems with mixed age groups. An older child may engage in elaborate play that the younger one doesn’t understand, and both children may become frustrated. And some older children may feel compelled to boss a younger child, knocking over his buildings and grabbing toys. When such children (who are often reenacting what happens to them when they play with an older sibling or friend) sense they are bigger than the children they’re playing with, they try to exert power. Parental supervision is needed in such situations to keep the play between younger and older children peaceful.

When you arrange playtime for your young child, encourage him to choose playmates who seem right for him. At times you may find it works best when he plays with children his own age; at other times you will want him to practice relating to and accepting children of different ages. After all, in the family, in the neighborhood, and out in public, he will be involved with people of all ages. What is more important than the ages of playmates is how well the children get along.

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