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Many moms cringe at the thought of their toddlers attempting to socialize. After all, most toddlers' favorite words are "No!" and "Mine!" -- which aren't exactly conducive to a fun playdate. Since there are only a few short years between the terrible twos and kindergarten, parents need to be proactive about teaching appropriate social skills. After all, toddlers aren't born knowing how to share, take turns or wait patiently.
Children begin showing interest in playing with peers around the age of 2, reports medical advice and education nonprofit, the Mayo Clinic. Younger toddlers tend to engage mostly in parallel play, where they play next to other children without much interaction. Even if they wanted to interact with other children, they lack the social skills to do so. Create opportunities to help your toddler learn how to appropriately play with peers and interact with adults. As with any new skill, this will take a lot of prompting and practice.
One of the best ways to teach appropriate social skills to your toddler is to model them yourself. Use each community outing as an opportunity to show your toddler how to interact with others. "Show them that you can greet someone who you don't even know. Express other ways to say hi so your child can see multiple interactions," says Julia Simens, author of "Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child" and a consultant who helps children whose families are moving to a new country adjust to their changing environment. Simens suggests turning social skills into a game by saying, "When we leave the house today we are going to greet ten people this morning." Point out each social interaction and count each greeting together.
Teach Through Play
While playing with your little one, verbalize specific social skills as you are using them Simens advises. Say, "I'm going to share this doll with you because that's a nice thing to do when you're playing." Point out how to take turns by saying, "I'm waiting for my turn until you are done." Use puppets, dolls or action figures to show other skills, such as how to invite a friend to play or how to respond to a child who behaves aggressively.
Involve extended family in helping your child learn and practice social skills in a safe environment. If he makes a mistake or has difficulty, coach him and keep practicing until he develops a better understanding. Simens warns against telling the child exactly what to do. "Instead of telling your child, 'Say hi to grandma,' give him an open-ended command. Say, 'Please come give grandma a nice greeting.'" By leaving it open-ended, you allow your child to think for himself and develop a better understanding of the skills, versus simply repeating what you say.
Arrange a Playdate
Plan a playdate with another toddler, but provide a structured activity that gives the toddlers an opportunity to engage in some parallel play. "Make a toy box to share with a friend," recommends Simens. Fill two identical boxes with similar toys and tell your toddler to invite the other child to play with him. "Most toddlers love to be invited to play. This age group often does parallel play, so having two boxes of the same thing allows each toddler to play, and yet they might have social interactions while playing," Simens notes. Stay close by while they're playing and help them interact successfully.
Toddlers don't necessarily need to go to day care just for socialization purposes, according to the National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families. Instead, look for opportunities in the community that can offer your child social interactions. Parent and child classes give your toddler an opportunity to socialize with same-age peers. Libraries often offer story times or other activities that provide socialization. Encourage participation in unstructured community activities by going to the playground or a children's museum. Prompt your child to greet other children. Provide coaching with specific skills, such as sharing and taking turns.