How to Make the Most of One-on-One Time with Your Toddler
By Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.
OK, the older kids are at camp and you’re at home alone with your toddler, who is demanding your 100-percent attention and entertainment.
Oh the ecstasy! Finally you and your youngest child get some time alone.
Oh the agony! What are you going to do all day with this nonstop bundle of energy?!
Here are some tips for keeping both of you happy. Along the way, you may even do something more constructive than screaming and pulling out your hair.
Namely, helping your toddler develop all those social, emotional and cognitive skills that you somehow had all the time in the world for with your oldest, but never seem to get around to doing with your younger one. Spending the day with your toddler might also give you greater appreciation for your older children for all the time they spent entertaining their younger siblings. Maybe they weren’t actually fighting and fussing all the time!
1. Younger siblings have a built-up need to be in charge. So play games that let them have a turn being the boss, such as “Follow the Leader” or “Simon Says.” Finally, they get a chance to be the boss of the blocks, and a chance to show off to you what they can build on their own. Best of all, they can knock down their block tower on their own timetable, without any “help” from an older sibling.
2. It’s a challenge to find games and activities suitable for different-aged kids. Older ones complain that toddler games are too babyish, and toddlers struggle to keep up in the big-kid games. So here’s your chance to play games that are too babyish for the older kids, but just right for your toddler. For example, spend time looking in a mirror together – add some face paint to your toddler’s cheek and notice how he or she plays with the concept of “who’s that in the mirror – is that me or another child?” Does she touch her own cheek or the cheek of the toddler in the mirror?
3. Sing and dance around the house to your favorite music. Freeze dancing is especially fun – every time you dance by the stereo, pause the music and freeze like a statue. Soon your toddler will try to freeze also. Anything with frequent stops and starts is great for building up a child’s patience and frustration tolerance. “Ring Around the Rosie” and “London Bridge” and just falling down giggling are also great at this age. And since they are just learning the rules of these games, they can get practice at home with you before playing it with the older kids.
4. Young children still like to help around the house; it makes them feel big, even after older kids “catch on” that you’re making them do housework! So let them help you sweep, dust, cook and straighten up. Don’t worry about their end results, just focus on having fun together.
Bring out the thick crayons and fingerpaints. Encourage any scribbles your toddler makes – remember that scribbling is the first step to drawing, just like babbling is the first step to speaking. Speaking of first steps, you can also encourage your toddler’s earliest efforts at fantasy play. If she offers you a block, pretend it is a cookie and take a “bite.” If she signals that she is hungry, try offering her a pretend snack first. (Of course, if she really wants to eat and not play make-believe, get out the real snacks!)
Set a timer for 15 minutes and play a game that your toddler loves, but you dread playing. For some parents that means joining their son in a rousing game of flinging action figures down the stairs. For me, it meant dressing up dolls; I hated that dress-up game! It was so boring – not to mention sexist. How could my daughter want to spend her days playing such a dull game? I fought against playing it, but then one time I decided to set a timer and – for 15 minutes – be extra enthusiastic about dressing up Ariel the Little Mermaid. My daughter and I had a great time! All it took was my being enthusiastic instead of dreading it, and that let her relax and make the game more creative.
Some toddlers really miss their older siblings when they head off to school or preschool. You can work together on a Welcome Home banner, a drawing and note to send to school with them the next day, or a special obstacle course to challenge them when they get home.
8. “Hide and Seek” is a game that has very different rules for toddlers and for older kids, so it’s fun to play when the big kids are off at school. For toddlers, of course, you make it much easier for them to find you, and you don’t tease them when they think they are hiding by closing their eyes, or when they announce where they are as soon as you start looking.
9. Games and activities that involve knowledge or surprises are great to do with toddlers after the big kids go to school – since it’s just too tempting for older ones to give away the surprises or the answers. Some examples are simple counting games, naming the parts of the body, guessing games and simple science experiments. (What will happen when we put this water in the freezer? … When we leave this ice on the counter? … When we let the bread dough sit for a few hours?) Without an older sibling spoiling the surprise, you’ll give your toddler the gift of a sense of wonder and discovery.
10. Rough and tumble play can be unsafe with kids of different ages and sizes, if the older ones don’t hold back their strength. When you are one-on-one with the smaller one, you can make sure that this type of active play is safe and fun. My favorite game is to have a toddler try hard to push me over, and then I fly over because they are “so strong.” Another favorite is the sock game, where you get on the floor with socks on your feet (no shoes), and each person tries to get the other person’s socks off while keeping their own on. As with all kinds of playful wrestling and active play, make sure that you let the child build confidence by not overpowering them.
Once you’re done playing all these exciting games, don’t forget the downtime. Second (or third) kids don’t get talked to, read to or sung to as much as their oldest siblings, so now is a good time to catch up with those quiet ways of bonding.
Learn More: Read Dr. Cohen's 10-part series, The 10 Talents of Parenthood.
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Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., is a psychologist who specializes in children’s play and play therapy, and is the author of several books.