Encourage Your Toddler’s Social and Emotional Development with these Playtime Tips

Encourage Your Toddler’s Social and Emotional Development with these Playtime Tips

When we think of toddlers, a few “T” words come to mind: Tantrums, Terrible Twos and Time-Outs. 

It’s no secret that these developmental years can come with challenging changes that tend to bring about the blues in parents and children alike. But there is a “reason for the season” – emotional and social development. 

Dads Should Lean in During the Toddler Years

Children this age are discovering a lot about emotions all at once:  They’re learning that they have emotions, how to process these emotions, what causes their emotions, how to communicate their emotions, and that others have emotions, too. No wonder my toddler is in puddles of tears because they “can’t never watch shows” that they just watched, or they’re hulking out without warning because they don’t want to watch the same show as their sibling. 

How is a parent to survive these years AND aid in their child’s emotional and overall development? According to Australia-based nonprofit The Fathering Project, fathers play a critical role in emotional regulation and behavior management for toddlers. So, Dad, this isn’t a time to pull away or send your toddler to Mom. Rather, it is a time to engage and have impact in this life stage as well. 

The pivotal question is how? Well, I’m glad you asked. The answer is consistency. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that during this phase of life, consistently modeling appropriate behavior is the most impactful for continued progression and positive development. These little eyes and ears are experts at observation: Your youngster is learning the most from what they see and hear. 

I remember intervening with my toddlers when social interactions were trending toward outburst. I always asked the conceptual question: “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” That was often followed by a blank stare, tears or a tantrum. It was never a productive interaction of social understanding. This was because toddlers don’t comprehend social comparisons and can’t guess how others feel. On the other hand, youngsters are adept at observing behaviors and later linking them to social cues, so I didn’t get much done with my mini lectures. 


How Planned Play Fosters Emotional and Social Development

Modeled, intentional and interactive play is said to be the most impactful for a toddler’s social and emotional development. The Fathering Project suggests that planned playtime has the most impact because the child has the father’s undivided attention. Scheduled playtime is a perfect learning environment for toddlers—and a great teaching atmosphere for parents. 

It takes a little preparation for dads to make the most of these opportunities. For instance, if we’re wanting to take our little one outside, we need to be sure it’s a conducive environment for enjoyment and sustained time together. 

Here’s an example of poor planning so you can learn from my mistake: I can recall taking my child fishing when they were around two years old. There was great excitement, especially when we were buying worms. When we arrived at the lake, they wanted to throw practically anything they found in the water, which only served to scare all the fish away. 

After some redirection to the activity of casting and hook preparation, all they wanted to do was play with the worms. Then after about fifteen minutes they were ready to leave because “it was boring.” Needless to say, I failed to set them up for a sustained time of play.

LEARN MORE: E474—The Power of Play in Men’s Mental Health


Cater Playtime to Your Kiddo’s Individual Needs

Dads can set their toddlers up for success by planning around their schedule so that they’re able to thrive during play. For instance, plan playtime well before naptime (or just after naptime) to ensure they’re not tired. Make sure they’re fed and have plenty of access to snacks for ongoing energy and engagement. 

Our two children were very different when it came to energy limits. One child was ready to go the moment they opened their eyes, so we could strike out for adventure immediately following nap. Conversely, our other child needed time to acclimate after waking, so we found we needed about 30 minutes to buffer. 

They also differed in their reaction around other children: One was always ready to engage with their playmates—and the other was often overstimulated after just 15 minutes of play. 

Carefully observe your toddler to discover what they need, and remember: No two kids are exactly the same. 


Planning Successful Playdates

Playdates are helpful for a number of reasons:

  • Playdates (with careful parent supervision) help your child learn appropriate ways to get along with youngsters their own age.
  • Playdates create unique scenarios and environments for learning and exploration. We’ve established that toddlers learn best from observation, so play dates hosted at a friend’s house help your youngster to observe the temperaments of others, become accustomed to social interaction, understand subtle ques on entering someone else’s space, and learn the rules of interacting with permission from the host.
  • It’s also helpful to have playdates at your location so that we can help demonstrate welcoming and sharing of our personal possessions.
  •   Playdates hosted at neutral locations, like a park or library, are great for demonstrating common space adherence and healthy exploration that can lead to social confidence that lends to maturity in the toddler stage.
  • Lastly, playdates are a great way to develop parental camaraderie. Sometimes as fathers we need to know our situations aren’t outliers and that other fathers of toddlers are experiencing the same behaviors—and are surviving! Support helps with a diversity of ideas on interacting with your two-year-old, getting the scoop of great places to explore, and how to recoup after a long day or night. Supportive fathers will help you to remember that you don’t need to be perfect, but you need to be present. 


Dads, we want to hear from you! Share your playdate wisdom with us by sending us a message at [email protected]

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