Updated: Jun 18, 2020
Brothers or sisters are often one of the first – and most formative – relationships many of us will establish. Dr Amanda Gummer writes that ‘sibling relations are defined by intimacy; as youngsters spend large amounts of time playing together.’ Just as play provides invaluable opportunities for individual learning, sibling play can be key to child development, as they copy physical skills from one another and learn to understand their own emotions and those of their siblings.
While cultivating an environment in which siblings can and want to play together is so valuable, we know it can be a challenge for parents, particularly when there is an age-gap between children. We’ve put together our top tips to providing opportunities for little ones to play together and getting the most from sibling playtime.
1. Give plenty of opportunities for individual and together-play – and quality time with parents too:
Just as we advocate little ones pursuing their own learning journeys based on what resonates with them, it’s important that sibling playtime is not forced. Remember your children have individual temperaments and each may need more, or less, alone time. Always make sure that little ones feel they have enough personal space in their own home, especially if they are feeling jealous or threatened by the arrival of a new sibling – if they don’t have their own room, set them up with a designated corner or den filled with their favourite toys and books where they can go when they need to be by themselves.
Notice the activities that naturally engage both children and set up invitations to play around these. Remember that your little one may not instinctively know how to play with a sibling – after all, it was just them and Mum or Dad before! Gently initiate a game or activity and role model how an older child can involve their younger sibling. Once you’ve demonstrated, allow the older child to explore different ways to engage their sibling in play in the future. If siblings are playing happily together, notice what is working and give them any support they need, trying not to interrupt as far as possible (outside of making sure they are safe).
Even if only for 20 minutes a day, finding one-on-one time for each child with each parent, where you are fully present and engaged with them and where you let them choose the activity, will help each children to feel secure in your love for them and reduce sibling conflict – more on this later.
2. Set ground rules or boundaries:
While we want to give older children freedom to choose how they involve their younger siblings in their play, it’s important to let them know your expectations. Make an older child a ‘co-conspirator’ and explain to them that their younger sibling will learn a lot from them, so they need to behave safely and kindly while they are playing.
Before play starts, make sure you have set clear rules that an older child can understand and achieve. Have a conversation with the older child to involve them in the rule-setting – what do they think the rules need to be to keep everyone safe? Try to make sure any rules are expressed in a positive way, for example ‘we should use kind and gentle hands’ rather than ‘we mustn’t hit.’ This helps your little one to see the value in the good action, rather than simply forbidding the bad one.
3. Use sibling play as an opportunity to reinforce positive behaviour:
Through their play, children will naturally gain a greater understanding of their emotions and those of others but may need help in navigating trickier skills such as sharing, negotiation and compromise. Try to promote a sense of collaboration between siblings, letting them know that they are a team when they play rather than being in competition with each other, and that if they behave with respect and kindness, they will have more fun. Notice and praise them when they work well together as a team, for example when they both paint on the same large sheet of paper to create a huge artwork, or if they communicate and work together to set up a role play game. Always avoid comparing one to the other - ‘See how nicely your sister is sharing? Why can’t you do it like that?’ - as this will only increase a sense of competition which is more likely to lead to conflict.
If one child is much younger than the other, you can still reinforce this sense of a family ‘team’ by making sure the older child knows that they are part of any games and are helping their parent by playing with little one. Even if it’s just showing a baby their favourite toys or helping Mum or Dad to make silly faces at them, this will ensure the older child feels included and lays the foundations for future successful play together.
4. Diffuse conflict in a positive way:
Sibling conflict is inevitable and learning to recognise and manage their feelings is a key part of children’s development. Help little ones to understand why conflict is happening by encouraging them to express how they are feeling, whether this be tired, frustrated, or inadequate, and to consider what they could do to stop feeling this way, without directing blame towards their sibling. Jealousy and a desire for attention is often a trigger for conflict, so make sure your little ones know that they are equally loved and valued, and that there is plenty of everything to go around.
Encourage each child to see things from the other’s point of view, while remaining as neutral as possible. If one child is much younger, coax your older child to change their perspective on the game to make it more inclusive. If an older child is frustrated that their younger sibling keeps knocking over their block tower, encourage them to see this as the aim of the game – ‘Your little sister loves knocking over really tall towers, so see if you can make one really tall for her!’ However, try to stay attuned to your child’s mood, and to remind them that playing together should be fun - encourage your little ones to pursue separate activities if their play isn’t giving them what they need at that time.
5. Our top activities for shared play:
Reading together – especially if it’s in a den or fort! Even if children are not accomplished readers yet, they can still share their favourite books, either reading them to each other from memory or making up their own stories together.
Pretend play – making believe is a brilliant way for siblings to play together as there are no rules and they can each bring their own ideas, however outlandish! Whether they are setting up a shop or café, travelling on a pirate ship or alien spacecraft or playing at teacher and student, imaginative role play is wonderful for their individual development and to develop cooperation skills. Get them started by giving them a prop such as a cardboard box and see where their imaginations take them!
Giant art projects – great for siblings of different ages, whether it’s using chalks or painting with water on a pavement or painting using hands and feet on a giant piece of cardboard. Little ones will love being creative together and can move at their own pace to create a collaborative masterpiece!
Music and movement – kitchen or living-room discos are perfect to get little ones moving, and siblings will copy each other in their movements, trying out new physical skills and even extending their vocabularies as they sing along. Little ones can join in with our Maggie & Rose Mini Musicians classes on YouTube, or freestyle to their favourites!
Role-modelling – older siblings can play with much younger siblings by acting as their teacher, showing them how to clap, smile, turn the pages of a book or even start to walk. Ask the older sibling to show their favourite toys or books to their younger sibling and to talk to them about them - make sure they know that what they are doing is helping baby to learn all the things that the older sibling can do now so they can play together later!