Last week, my youngest asked me to play this Pancake Pile Up game with him.
He's a little young for it (2.5 years old) but we mostly just practice stacking and pretending to eat them. He loves it and we normally have a lot of fun with this game.
I'm doing what I usually do, stacking them up on my blue plate when I hear - "NOT THAT ONE!"
I ask, "What's wrong? You don't want me to use the blue plate today?"
"Not the banana one!", he says and he takes it from my plate and puts it back on the pretend griddle.
Ok so I can't take a banana pancake today. I try to grab another one on my spatula - "NOT THAT ONE!", he shouts again, while still busy working on his own plate.
Now I'm trying to be empathic to his frustration but I'm also trying to hold back a smile. I have no idea what I'm doing wrong and why I seem to be grabbing all the 'wrong' pancakes today.
Sometimes play time with young children can feel like a minefield.
You have no idea what the rules are but you're definitely expected to!
While there's not an easy solution to these situations, there is a good reason behind their feelings and actions.
Why Our Children Correct Our Play...
It's often for two reasons.
Firstly, because of their need for order.
Young children tend to look for (and create) order when they can. It's their way of making sense of the world.
Think about it - you're two years old and have no idea what day it is, what you'll eat that day, who will visit you, if you need to leave the house or not, etc.
Every day can feel mostly unpredictable.
Any little bit of control or order they can create is important to them.
In play situations, sometimes they have an idea of how the play will unfold. When you go "off script", your child may feel frustrated or upset.
It's more likely to happen when you're not playing the same way you were playing the last time or in a way they expect you to based on past experiences.
For example: If the red car made a "vroom vroom" sound every time you drove it on the road last time, they may be expecting it to make that sound again the next time you play.
They Also Lack Perspective-Taking
According to author, teacher, and childhood development researcherEllen Galinsky, children don't developthe capacity to understand that others have thoughts different than their own until sometime after the third year of life(1).
With that in mind,you can see why toddlers seem to just expect that you know "the script" during play. The don't fully understand that you have your own thoughts and feelings.
Two Ways To Approach This With Your Child
There are a couple of ways to approach a child correcting you during play:
1. Let them guide you.
Don’t take the correction personally and ask them to show or tell you how they want you to play with them.
This is a great approach because you can learn so much about them (the skills they're working on, they're interests, etc) by following their lead.
Look for ways to extend their play, rather than trying to steer it in a different direction.
2. If you really want to play in your own way, tell them that.
It’s okay to do this. It helps children to understand that we all have different perspectives. It's just important that you don't insist your child play your way.
You can say something like "Ok, I want to build the blocks into a tower so I’ll do that over here and you can keep pretending they’re cars over there."
For children under three years old, it makes more sense to play the way they want you to (option #1).
They’re asking you to play with them and building a strong connection is most important during these years.
As they get closer to 3, you can start trying out the 2nd approach above. I wouldn’t recommend doing this every time but once in a while will be a good introduction to perspective taking.
Ross Thompson of the University of California at Davis emphasizes how perspective taking helps children make sense of their own and others’ experiences.
Studies have found that young children who learn perspective taking have a better adjustment to kindergarten. It helps them understand what their teachers want and expect. There are connections between this skill and learning to read.