Social problem solving skill development is a process that begins very early in childhood.  We see the progression of these skills every day in the toddler groups in our office on Melrose where children and parents meet weekly for facilitated developmental play and parent discussion.

Scheduling play dates at least once a week is a great way to give your toddlers and preschoolers the opportunity to practice their developing social skills.  The following are strategies that will support emerging social relationships, facilitate friendships, and resolve conflicts.

5 Strategies to Help Young Children Resolve Conflicts on Play Dates

1. Calling for help

2. Trading

3. Taking Turns

4. Walking away

5.  Making a Plan


2 toddlers playing with cars on the trail, learning to take turns being supervised by adults at early childhood development class

1. Calling for help

On playdates we teach toddlers about the benefits of learning to use their words instead of hitting, pushing, biting, etc. when there is a conflict.  One of the best phrases we can teach our young children to use is “help me”.   The tendency to call for help emerges as children develop and adults respond. Quick responses to calls for help when children get too close to each other or have a conflict tell children that their communication is received. When we validate these calls for help, children learn that the world is responsive to their needs.

When 2 children want the same toy, both may grab it and then scream for help. Parents should be responsive to these situations, validate the call for help and begin to help the children involved to understand that although grabbing didn’t work, there are some other strategies that will work better.

adult teaching toddlers how to play together with cars trading and taking turns at early childhood development class

2. Trading

When children’s expressive language skills are not yet sophisticated enough for them to deal verbally with their peers, parents can teach them “trading”.  In a situation in which one child begins shrieking as another child grabs a favored toy, parents can hand the child who is grabbing the toy  another one of equal interest, to trade and say, “Ask him to trade with you!” or, “Give her the doll in exchange for the book.”    The concept of trading (exchanging something for something rather than something for nothing) facilitates social skills that can be expanded as children grow.

kids playing and learning to share using with sand timer at early childhood development class

3. Taking Turns

After trading is learned, the concept of “taking turns” can be introduced on play dates. This requires children to delay gratification for a little while and to participate as an onlooker until the other child is ready to take a turn.  Sensitive adults can help children learn this skill by explaining what is happening while providing the physical support and supervision necessary. Parents can say, “Who had the toy first?” and “Let’s give it back to Jasper because he had the toy first” followed by, “Say ’Turn please’ if you want a turn, Jacob,” and, “Let’s use the timer so we know when it is time for your turn.”  We recommend use of the large one minute sand timer from Lakeshore for this purpose.  Another way to facilitate taking turns is to say, “Let’s count to 10 and then it will be Jacob’s turn.”  Counting to 10 is a good way to go when playdates occur outdoors or in an environment in which there is no place for a timer.

4.  Walking away

“Walking away” is a technique used to help children begin to use words rather than aggressive actions to solve problems.  There are 2 forms of “walking away”.  I can tell you to walk away from me or I can walk away from you if you are bothering me.  Both techniques empower children to solve their own problems while using words as problem-solving tools. “Walking away” is an adult-supported activity during early childhood.  Parents need to be close and remind the child to talk to his friend who is standing too close. “Tell Henry you don’t like it when he stands too close. Tell him, ’move please!’”  Parents provide the words and the support.

toddlers playing inside a pretend boat at early childhood development class

5.  Making a Plan

When there is a conflict on a play date, facilitated “plan-making” helps both children to get a turn with a treasured toy. This also requires adult support.

Parents can say,”I have an idea about how to solve the problem so that both of you will get a turn” followed by,  “Ruby will use the toy for 3 minutes, and then I will help Ruby to give the toy to Grace for 3 minutes.”  Then the parent helps the second child to find an activity to do while she waits.  “And right now I will help Grace to find another activity to do while she waits. Let’s go blow some bubbles, Grace!”

“Plan-making” keeps parents from becoming referees on play dates.  No one loses. One child has to delay gratification, but she gets the adult’s help in doing so. “Plan- making” also keeps parents from saying “no” all the time.  Having a plan is very different from not being able to do something.

Facilitated play dates are an important part of young children’s early education and social development. Play dates help to prepare children for school and for later success in their community and work place.

written by Marilee Hartling

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The Early Childhood Development Associates is located at: 8344 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles | CA | 90069