There’s a cute humor piece titled “Toddler Rules”. “If I like it, it’s mine. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine. If it looks like mine, it’s mine.” And so on. That sums up much of toddler behavior – and the behavior of two-year-olds, and even some children three-years-old and older. Being able to share objects, materials, and physical space comes later in early childhood, when children have the cognitive skills to consider another person’s point of view. Truly cooperative or play comes even later, once children develop the cognitive, social, and verbal skills needed for engaging in reciprocal social relationships that involve negotiation and collaboration.
Since I know that it’s unlikely that twos and young threes will be able to share or take turns, I set up my classroom with multiple sets of identical items and clearly defined play areas. This is especially important for table activities where children don’t have the same ability to move away from other children, or to spread their materials over a large area without bumping into someone else. My goal is for the children to be able to be engaged with the materials without having to be protective of their space. Knowing that “this is my space, and these are my materials” can help children relax and explore.
I usually set up paint in a way so that each child has a complete set of the same colors, so they can concentrate on painting instead of passing paint back and forth or waiting for turns. It’s hard to be immersed in the creative process if every time you need a color you have to negotiate for it, especially if you’re two-years-old, and don’t have the skills to negotiate successfully.
Last week, something amazing happened. Six children all crowded around a table set up with four spots for painting. I did what I usually do, tell the children that there isn’t more space and suggest a different activity we could do together while they wait. But one of the children looked up and said, “Someone can paint with me.” Then a second child smiled and said, “Someone can paint with me too.” They each moved over and made space for another child to share their tray of paint. They took turns choosing colors, and two of the children even started painting together on the same piece of paper.
We’re nearing the end of the year, and almost all the children in the room have turned three. The two children who offered to share their paints are the oldest in the room, both three and half. When they offered their paints a younger child (who has just turned three) at the table looked concerned, and responded by grabbing her own paint, looking straight at me, and yelling, “Mine!” in no uncertain terms – which she repeated suspiciously several times as she watched the other pairs of children paint together.
Working together is a developmental step that happens when children are ready. We can force them to share materials or take turns, but true cooperation and collaboration has to come from the child, not from adult coercion. No amount of classroom rules, incentives, scolding, or platitudes of “you can’t say you can’t play” or “we all share at school” can push a child to have the cognitive ability to engage in this type of social activity. We can model, and we can look for opportunities to encourage and scaffold prosocial behavior, but just like every other developmental skill, working together will happen – when they’re ready.