How To: Manage Sibling Play

Updated: Aug 21

So many of you have asked how I manage to entertain three children at the same time. I will readily admit that it is something that has been a steep learning curve! When I was a first time mum I was entirely child-led and completely focussed on my boy. Then along came his brother, and then another! A complete game changer in terms of parenting. So, how do I do it?

I used to be a teaching assistant and much of my role was differentiating on the spot, teachers would provide work for the class and I would have to scan it, establish my expectations of a child who would perhaps not otherwise keep up with the lesson, and pick out key skills or activities for them. This experience really helped me when I began to teach classes myself, and even more so when I became a second (and third) time mum!

When I'm setting up play I initially focus on the two bigger boys. I do not expect them to work together on one task, or over one set of toys - they are just too young to manage all of the emotions and skills that come with team work, Small especially!

I try to always create similar activities but differentiate them accordingly, that way there's no jealousy about wanting the others game. On the surface they will look the same, but the skills required will be very different! I set them up first as they will then be able to play without my support while I sort something out for Tiny.

I set up two trays at the table, side by side or opposite each other, close enough so that communication is still easy and natural - I love it when they chat together whilst playing, but not so close that I need to elbow my way in to assist or support their play. I use trays as they are portable, which means we can be flexible. Another plus is that trays contain mess or small parts and being at the table means that any spills that do happen shouldn't end up on the floor where they could become a choking hazard for the baby! I start off with a loose plan, the beginnings of an idea and from there will fill the trays. I don't like to be too prescriptive because I've found that often the best learning and playing comes from the child. As soon as the boys see that I have set something up, they come running! I go to Big first to explain his game as Small is happy to just explore the contents of the tray, and make up his own activity while I'm busy. Once I've supported Big in starting off I will go to Small, he is not so used to directed play as he is still very young so I will join him in his game and chat with him a little. I will make observations about the content of the tray, for example I've set up a tray with animals, playdough and some magnetic numbers - he will probably hide the animals in the playdough (hello enveloping schema), I would then press a number into the dough and say "ooh look! What's this funny looking thing?" (children love it when you ask for their help 'remembering' stuff like this) and we would then begin a discussion about numbers and how we can use them to count the animals.

But what about the baby? The baby is happy exploring, looking at books or playing with me. We play together a lot, his attention span is naturally so short at this age I don't expect him to play the entire time his brothers are occupied, but more little and often. Therefore, when his brothers are all set and playing happily, that is when I choose to engage in some quality face-to-face baby activity. If I can use the general theme of his older brothers play, I will; I don't need to complicate things by thinking of three wholly different games everyday! So in the example above of animals, numbers and playdough, I would read a book about animals to Tiny, and talk to him naming the animal and mimicking the noise it makes. We might then sing some animal songs and see if we can match any toy animals to the ones in our picture book.

I rarely set up one activity for us all to do together, at these ages (6, 4 and 1) the gaps in ability, knowledge and resilience are too great. Occasionally I will set something up for Big and Tiny to do, as he thrives on the responsibility and it helps me out too! My advice to all you parents of more than one child is to differentiate to make it work for you and your kids. Life is already complicated enough - keep play simple! And please, please remember that when your Instagram feed is filled with siblings seemingly playing beautifully together, that it's a snap shot of a moment! The reality will often be very different.

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