Social Development in the Sand Box (36-60 months)

“I was so embarrassed yesterday when my child took another’s toy and then hit him with it,” said the young mother.

She described a communal play area (large park sand box) where several three to five-year-old children were playing.  Her four-year-old daughter had wanted to join in with the other children, but after several minutes of interacting appropriately with the others, she suddenly snatched another child’s toy and when he wanted it back, she used the toy like a bat and hit the child in chest.  The crying child was not hurt, but all the adults reacted with protection in mind for their off-spring; and, comments about the young mother’s child not being “nice to others.”  Our young mother picked up her offending daughter, who was now crying and clinging to the toy/bat, gave the toy back to the child and said, “I’m so sorry.”  She quickly fled the park and took her daughter home.

“Why would she suddenly do something like that?  She’s been in daycare and had a lot of play dates.  This is the first time she ever hit another child!”  Mom looked at me as if her carefully planned world had just collapsed.  Her daughter seemed fine, watching and singing along with Barney.

First:  Hopefully by the time children reach the age of FIVE, they will be ready to consistently share their toys with others.  There is a reason why children start formal education when they are FIVE years old.  It’s technically called “Interactive Play.”   Most kindergarteners can be counted on to “Play nice” through sharing of toys and “being nice to others.”  But then something happens and even tired or emotionally stressed FIVE year olds break down and have moments of being “out of sorts.”

Our friends from the Washington State Early Learning and Development Benchmarks–Review Draft, Nov. 2004 have this to say about “Children Cooperating with Peers:”

36 to 60 Months:

Some Indicators for Children:

  • Plays with other children independently at times
  • Cooperates with other children, with assistance.
  • Shares materials and toys during play, with assistance.
  • Makes decisions with other children, with assistance.

Some Strategies for Caregivers:

  • Cooperate with child and others in daily tasks
  • Encourage and acknowledge cooperation when child plays with other children.
  • Provide opportunities for child to share materials.
  • Read stories or invent puppet plays in which characters share, take turns, and cooperate.

Our four-year-old Disruptor of the Peace of the Sand Box was in need of “ASSISTANCE.”  She did not have the cognitive or emotional tools to know how to say something like, “I like your toy.  When you’re finished with it can I borrow it?”  Nor, most likely, did the child with the toy have the cognitive or emotional ability to say, “I’ll share my toy with you.”

Parents, teachers, caregivers need to anticipate and intervene with the correct language, helping children to PRACTICE being SOCIALLY APPROPRIATE.  (When was the last time you watched as two guys made a lunge for the dinner tab?  Each one intent on playing the whole bill to prove  . . .?   This is a bit like a child intent on “lunging” for the toy so as to have dominance in the sand box.)

So instead of removing the offending child from the sandbox, it would have been much more instructional for ALL the parents to engage in a conversation about sharing and taking turns.  This would be an ideal moment for a parent whose child may have witnessed the altercation to LEARN from the altercation.  It is the responsibility of the adult to give the child the opportunity to learn and grow from MISTAKES.

So please, go back to the sandbox.  Anticipate that children will not always “play nice” and begin a dialogue about sharing and taking turns.  Life is about PRACTICING.  The earlier we understand and respect this process, the faster we can use the Refrigerator Rules of:



Nice to be Around


Resourceful (starting at about age 4)

Good luck with your Sand Box play mates, both the young and the not-so-young.

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