This post is by regular contributor Kate Fairlie of Picklebums.
We have four kids – seven year old twin girls, a four year old boy and a one year old boy. Sometimes finding the space or suitable activities for everyone to play together can be a bit tricky. Sometimes there is frustration and tears, but mostly we find ways for everyone to do what they need to do without upsetting anyone else!
Here are my tips, tricks and ideas for play and activities with children of multiple ages.
Set Up For Success
Try to set up your living areas so that children can be successful and independent. Think about the developmental stages of your children and set up the environment so that you can say yes more often than you say no.
If you can remove (out of sight, not just out of reach) objects that you don’t want played with. We’ve not had a coffee table in our living room for the past 6 years. It was easier to go without the coffee table than rescue the baby who’d climbed up there or shout at the preschooler who liked to leap off it.
Store toys in ways that are easy for all children to access and to put away. Baskets or containers on open shelves work well. Put toys more suitable for little ones down low and those for older kids up high, out of the baby’s reach.
Setting up your environment for success will mean your children are more able to play independently for longer, and will help them play together (or alongside each other) with less arguments and frustrations.
Choose Toys Wisely
Choose toys that can be used in a variety of ways by children of different ages. Remember that older kids still enjoy the basics and the right toys will never be grown out of.
Open-ended toys such as wooden blocks, Duplo, animal figurines, home play items, etc. can all be enjoyed by children of all ages in lots of different ways. Even our seven year-olds still love playing with blocks and will create complex constructions, while the preschooler loves to build tall towers and the baby loves to knock them down or simply put the blocks in and out of various containers.
Set up a play scene or simple activity to engage one child while you do something special with the other(s). Opening the door to the plastics cupboard will interest my smallest for a while so I can build Lego with his big brother. A play scene with sand, leaves and dinosaurs will keep the preschooler happy for hours leaving me free to play with the baby.
Divide and Conquer
Sometimes activities that aren’t safe for the baby, or that need lots of supervision, are best done somewhere or sometime when he is not around.
There are some activities that I simply can’t manage when my attention is split between too many things, so we use the baby’s afternoon nap to do complex activities that require lots of my attention, assistance or supervision.
We also wait till there are two adults on hand to do some more grown-up activities that would bore our preschooler and end in disruption and frustration. It’s best to read that long and tricky book after he is in bed, or do that special art activity when the preschooler and baby can hang out with Daddy.
Activities that don’t need my constant attention but are not baby friendly, are set up in places that the baby can’t access. He has not yet mastered climbing onto the dining chairs so often the bigger kids will take what are usually ‘floor toys’ up onto the table. Blocks and floor puzzles are safely out of reach from ‘The Wrecker’ so they can play unhindered.
The same works for toys with small pieces, art activities, or any activity where our smallest might eat the equipment.
We use a big tray with sides to help keep tiny pieces like Lego or beads from getting lost on the floor and in the baby’s mouth. The big kids know to be vigilant, and make sure any dropped pieces are quickly rescued before they are swallowed.
You could also use an old fashioned play pen. Not for the baby, as they would quickly get bored and frustrated in such a confined space, but pop the bigger kids and their activity in there to keep them out of the way.
It’s not just important to keep the baby safe but also to allow the big kids space and time without the smallest family member wrecking everything. It also saves my sanity so I can go about my work, while they play, without worry.
Learning to play together, share and get along is not easy, even when everyone is at a similar stage of development. It is even harder when there are combinations of ages. It is a big ask to expect even a school aged child to always understand and accommodate the needs of younger children.
Supporting your children’s play by supervising and stepping in when frustrations occur will help everyone play together. Explain the needs of younger children and how older children can accommodate them within their play. But don’t expect older children to always give up their toys, or change their activities for younger children, that’s not fair and does not build positive relationships.
Support younger children while they play, especially if they are taking part in an activity that might be a little tricky for them. With a little supervision, timely support, and perhaps some simple modifications, young children can feel successful doing more complex activities.
And lastly, have realistic expectations. Depending on the ages and stages of your children, it is not always going to be possible to include all of your children in all things all the time. Sometimes you have to let go of the idea that your children will play perfectly together all the time, or that you will be able to do complex activities. Sometimes you have to accept the joyful chaos that is siblings and bide your time… eventually, when everyone is a little older, there will be time for that amazing play idea.
What are your tips for managing play time with children of different ages?
Be sure to check out Kate’s follow up post – Managing Kids Art with Children of Different Ages.