The Baby Social Scene – 5 Hints For Creating Safe And Joyful Playgroups

A recent post, Is Your Baby A Bully? Genius? Shy? Why We Should Lose Labels, stirred up unexpected controversy. Several parents were apparently shocked by my suggestion that babies could play together with minimal intervention, without adults reminding the babies to share, or asking them to give something back because “so-and-so had it first”. 

The comments that surprised me most (in an off-site follow-up discussion) expressed the opinion that infants and toddlers were simply too young to socialize. These parents believe that their children are not ready for contact with other babies, period.

I certainly understand how intimidating social interactions between toddlers, even between infants can appear.  I’ve seen the expressions of fear, panic, and utter embarrassment on a parent’s face when his or her adorable baby seems a bit aggressive, or asserts power over another, i.e., crawls over another infant, extends a finger towards an eye (thankfully eliciting the blink reflex), pokes it into a mouth, or removes a toy from another baby’s possession.  I felt a little wound up myself when one of my children used to snatch anything and everything out of another toddler’s hands when she came over to play.

But in my experience, these situations are not nearly as upsetting to babies as they are to adults. And when we react to infant and toddler play from our adult perspective, make judgments, and give negative attention to innocent social exploration and experimentation, we risk fanning a tiny spark into flames.

Yes, babies have clumsy, awkward interactions, test boundaries and make plenty of social missteps. That is how they learn. But by providing safe settings for our babies to experience age-appropriate conflicts, we give them opportunities to fully encounter the other end of the spectrum – moments of authentic, joyful connection with a peer.

Here are 5 hints for creating healthy, educational and enjoyable infant and toddler playgroups

A familiar, safe place. Consistency. Familiarity may breed contempt in adults, but for infants and toddlers it is the key to comfort. Knowing what to expect — the usual time, place, and people give a baby the freedom he needs to explore, engage and participate with confidence.  The space should be enclosed and fully childproofed so that the children do not have to be observed every second.

Safe, lightweight, washable, simple toys (with some multiples if possible) that can be used imaginatively in variety of ways work best. (See Infant Play – Great Minds At Work for specific examples.)

Babies of a similar age or stage of development. Infants and toddler groups are most productive when the children are within a few months of age, or at a similar stage of development. The babies can then interact most freely and safely with a minimum of interruptions.

Calm, observant, like-minded parents. Parents are advised to sit, relax, and exude confidence and trust. Babies are tuned in to our emotional energy and will feel tense or unsure if we do. We should allow the babies plenty of free space, with one parent staying a bit closer to the action to intervene if necessary. cropped the secret language (2)

Play time provides a wonderful opportunity for infants and toddlers to initiate separation (for a change). They appreciate the independence they feel when they get to choose when to leave the parent’s side. They then signal a need to return to the secure base the parent provides by crying (if they are not mobile yet) creeping, crawling or walking towards them.

Be sure to have at least one 10-15 minute period in which parents quietly observe the children. A peaceful atmosphere is less distracting for the babies, especially the more sensitive ones who may stay next to their parents, overwhelmed when everyone is talking.  This quiet observation period is when parents learn where their children’s interests lie and what they are working on. And it’s usually when magical moments between children occur.  charlotte and friend in playpen

Selective intervention, modeling gentleness. The babies should be observed by a calm parent “facilitator” sitting nearby and allowed to touch each other, but stopped before they hit, pull hair, push, or otherwise hurt one another. Our instinct may be to rush in and move the “instigator’s” hand away abruptly, but if we want gentle children, we are wise to model gentle behavior. Infant expert Magda Gerber taught parents to lightly stroke the side of an infant’s head and softly say, “Gentle” to both babies when we intervene.

Older toddlers usually know we want them to be gentle but may choose to test out something less so. In that case, the observant facilitator tries to anticipate, blocking the hit with her hand and saying calmly, but firmly, “I won’t let you hit (push, etc.)” Occasionally, a toddler is having a difficult day, needs shadowing and lots of firm, but matter-of-fact, non-judgmental intervention until he either relinquishes the need to test, or needs his parent to take him home.

Sportscasting. When a baby is struggling, whether it is with the workings of his body, a toy or another baby, he is comforted in his situation being acknowledged and understood. “Sportscasting” is the term Magda Gerber used to describe the helpful, non-judgmental account adults are advised to give of their children’s play-by-play. “Ruby, you wanted that. Now George has it. Ruby took it back.” It is especially reassuring for a child to be acknowledged when he is upset — it seems to help him process the feelings and move on. “Sally brushed by you and it bothered you. I saw that. You’re upset.” final emerson elijah Social scene - toddlers (2)

But there are many more positive, precious moments in safe baby play dates than difficult ones. Infants and toddlers are energized, entertained and educated by their peers. They imitate each other’s activities and vocalizations and take great interest in every interaction.

Is peer socialization necessary for infant /toddler development?  Probably not. But I know I wouldn’t trade the insights I’ve gained, the surprises and the laughter I’ve experienced watching babies play together for anything. I have a feeling our babies wouldn’t trade those moments either.

(I share more in my book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting)

And here’s one of my podcasts on this topic:


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I definitely agree. My 10 month old daughter LOVES playing with her 1 year old playmate at school. Sometimes they just play alongside each other happily but sometimes they take toys from each other. Her school encourages them to resolve the conflicts on their own and it really works. It’s how they learn to share. My daughter was out of school most of last week for an illness and she was so thrilled to see her friend when she came back to school on Monday. It really seems like she enjoys having other children her age to play with.

  2. Roseann Murphy says:

    Your article makes it is easy to picture the RIE classes that you facilitate. Easy to imagine the wonderful interaction of the children in the group. The fact that the adult is nearby to facilitate gently if needed is comforting.
    I recall the film where Magda illustrates the “sportscasting” technique..the film where an infant was “stuck” under a small table.
    How lovingly Magda padded his head with her hand….told him that he was stuck under the table….come this way…and assisted him without moving the table… and getting all excited etc…
    Thank you for sharing the RIE teachings and moments with all of us.

  3. Great tips! Although I’m not sure how important the similar age thing is. It seems natural for babies and kids to interact with others a few years apart, like their siblings. A 2 year old pushed my 11 month old the other day after my son snatched the other boy’s toy…my son didn’t care and I didn’t care (he wasn’t hurt and well, it was his fault) and the mom was soooo apologetic! I told her she didn’t need to be and that i thought it was good for my little guy to start learning you can’t just take other people’s toys, and that he’s not always going to be the biggest one around!

    1. Thanks! I just left a response to your comment on the “Is Your Baby A Bully?” post.

  4. I liked this post. I think the similar-minded parent thing is important. I find it really hard not to intervene when I’m around parents who are shocked that my son took something from their precious little baby. I think it does exacerbate the problem when a parent overreacts.

    I have no problem with the same age thing as long as the other children are fairly well-behaved, but my son went to nursery with some other toddlers and it was very stressful for him, because they were grabbing off of him so much. I felt he would be better off with older children who were much nicer to him, setting better examples.

    1. Thanks, Lisa. I know what you mean about feeling the need to intervene around parents who react strongly to even the mildest toddler struggles. I agree that it makes things worse, and it certainly discourages the children from playing together.

      When there is a pattern of behavior like what you describe in the nursery, it’s sometimes helpful for an adult to be nearby to support the toddler without solving things for him –giving him suggestions like: “You can say no.” or “I’ll keep you safe if you want to try holding on to that.” If a particular child is repeatedly taking from another I would disallow it calmly and place my hand in between them.

      The older children might be much nicer to your son…or they might not. I’ve seen it both ways!:)

  5. I’ll see if I can try your ideas for nursery. It’s just hard because there are too many in there…I usually have a child on my lap, so hard to get up, and it’s hard to watch them all.

    And yes, I’ve seen older children be nasty to little ones…I really meant the ones that ARE nice!

    1. Hi Lisa,

      Hmmm. When there are lots of children (more than 6 or 7) the stimulation level can get pretty intense and that usually doesn’t bring out everyone’s best behavior. I hand it to you for trying though! Take care.

  6. Interesting article! I have 16 month old twin boys, and I don’t require them to share with each other. In fact, I will sometimes say “It’s ok to take it back” if one has taken a toy from his brother and he gets upset.

    The problem I run into is the other parents at playgroups. They hover so hard, making sure their child is being “good”. I get strange looks when I say it’s ok for their child to NOT share the toy with one of my boys. I get nasty looks when I don’t enforce the sharing when the situation is reversed.

    I need to find an RIE playgroup!

    1. Sounds like you have terrific instincts! And I can assure you that you’re not the only one who feels a little different around other parents. You might want to check out the community forum here, the purpose of which is to connect parents all over the world to form RIE-type playgroups. ( ) Depending on where you live, there may already be a parent who has logged on, listed their city, and is just waiting to hear from you! 🙂

  7. I am having a problem with my son and his playmate. I hope I am dealing with it correctly. They are both nine months old. My son is younger by a few weeks. They have been having regular play together since early infancy as the other mother is a close friend. The problem is, the other boy is very exuberant, physical, and mobile. My son is not. He is quiet and contemplative. The other boy has discovered hitting– he does this in glee, not to hurt… but he does hurt my son, and my son cries out.
    We have, so far, been allowing our boys to play without much intervention, but today I really had to stay near to protect my son, as the hitting really upsets him.
    When the other boy struck my son, I took his hand firmly and said, “No, it is not safe to hit,” in a firm, but gentle voice. The boy turned around and crawled off to play. My boy cried, and I told him, “I am sorry that hurt. You will feel better soon.” And I let him cry in my lap, but did not do anything but rub his back and talk to him about what was happening, narrating the room.
    My boy seems to get overwhelmed easily in larger social situations with other children, and spends a lot of time sitting with me, observing the room. How do I protect him physically and emotionally, while encouraging him to reach out to others? He is very bright and plays independently for up to an hour at a time, often looking intentionally through books and babbling to himself while he does so, but he is not yet particularly mobile (he is happily sliding on his belly all over, and that seems enough to satisfy him), nor does he seem interested in physical activity. He likes to manipulate objects and talk to himself. He enjoys playing with the cat– and the cat enjoys him. He has learned gentle touch from the cat. They have a beautiful relationship.
    I am not sure how to keep both toddlers safe during playtime and encourage their relationship, as my son is not able to defend himself against the other boy’s youthful excitement and I cannot tolerate my son getting hurt. I don’t want to hover and haven’t had to until today.
    Another thing, the other boy will continually take things from my son, and that is difficult for my son at times. Sometimes, he doesn’t mind, but today, it was every item my son selected, until it was clear my son was upset. There was a point today, because I know my boy was teething and needed to be chewing on a certain object, where I said, “No, —– is using that right now.”
    Thoughts on this? Thank you.

    1. Hi Sophia! First, in case you are concerned about your son’s temperament, I want to ease your mind. Your boy sounds like a sensitive, gentle, thoughtful guy and that will be to his great advantage as a learner and a person. At 9 months, sliding on his belly is plenty mobile enough, and “observing the room” while staying close to his mother is an intelligent thing to do. Since he’s sensitive, be extra aware of any discomfort you might be projecting. It sounds like you handled the intervention with his friend respectfully, but, believe it or not, saying “No, it is not safe to hit,” in a firm, but gentle voice” might have made the exchange a tad too dramatic for your son, which could then add to his discomfort. At this age, staying close, blocking the hitting nonchalantly and modeling gentleness is the best response. As you say, your son’s friend means well. He’s not going to learn a big lesson about hitting right now. He just needs it gently blocked. It’s important not to “add on” any emotion that will make the hitting a more interesting thing to do or give your son the impression that something big and serious has transpired.

      So, I recommend shadowing in a relaxed manner (which is different from nervously hovering) and nonchalantly blocking the hitting. If you don’t get there in time and your son reacts or cries, acknowledge it matter-of-factly. “You didn’t like it when Ben hit you.” This isn’t down-playing your son’s feelings, it’s just being very careful not to fuel them with an emotional reaction on your part. Be available for him to come to you, but don’t rush in and pick him up…because that can add to his distress and even be what creates it.

      Once you have taken any (ever so subtle) emotional response out of the equation, you can trust your boy to engage with his peers in his way and time. Be patient. Remember that you son senses all your feelings, including worry and impatience.

      I would also not intervene when another baby takes toys from your son. Again, our reactions have a big impact on our child’s feelings about the situation. If he is using a special teether, I might make an exception and intervene with an acknowledgement, “You want this teether, but ___ needs it now and I can’t let you take it. There are some other choices over there.” The more relaxed you can be, the more relaxed and comfortable your boy will be with these social dynamics. Hope this helps…

  8. Thanks so much, Janet. I was starting to feel anxious because of the strength of the other boy. It would hurt me (physically) to be hit in the face by him! I am happy for my son to develop at his own pace socially, even if he is shy in the end, but my husband is very nervous that he won’t be successful socially without being “socialized” and if he shows fear or discomfort he’s “making strange”. I keep telling him that it’s normal for our son to feel nervous around a lot of people, and that I am not nervous at all about his social development. This is a boy who started giving me kisses and hugs at 7 months old, and will sing with us when we sing… he is very social with us, as it should be! Children are not dogs, for goodness sake.
    I keep telling my husband that the best place for our boy is with us, or own his own, exploring the world in his own time, and that he will tell us loud and clear when he wants to see other people. There is no need to force it!
    Thanks for the reassurance on his development. I do get nervous that he is not walking and he does not sit up on his own. He does pull up, but does not sit up… very strange. He’s been pulling up on me since he was very small, loves bouncing while holding onto my shoulders. He doesn’t mind sitting up at meal time, but he would much rather be on his belly, where he can navigate much easier. So that’s where he stays.
    It seems like everyone else has a super mobile baby, but mine would rather lay about and read books. Ha! This is not surprising since I would rather lay about and read books, too. However, if the books are not near enough, he is happy to do whatever it takes to get them!
    I do get complimented A LOT on my son’s quiet focus, and how he can play by himself. “Are you really going to just leave him there to play?” Uhm, yes? Why not? It’s so foreign to people. If my son does not get his quiet, independent play-time he has huge tantrums, and cannot sleep at night! He also does not need the comfort of the breast, or soother, or anything, really, when he is upset, just quiet reassurance from me, because I never offered anything but quiet physical and emotional reassurance (if his other needs were attended to)and allowed him to have a good cry if he needed until it passed. I am glad that I learned here that I did not have to stifle his crying immediately.
    He also doesn’t suck his thumb, and puts himself to sleep in his own crib… happily! I am proud of him and glad we practiced many of the techniques of RIE and will continue to.
    Thanks for your site, it’s wonderful. 🙂

    1. Sophia, this all sounds wonderfully healthy. I’m glad you are trusting your boy’s development. That is a gift that will last him a lifetime! And there are plenty of parents who express concern that their babies won’t listen to books… It’s always something, if we buy into the charts and comparisons. So, don’t! Just keep doing what you’re doing. 🙂

  9. Hi Janet. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, as always. I love the sound of this. As you may remember, my son is the youngest in his playgroup. Which means that the other moms are always jumping in to stop their sons (they’re all boys) from taking toys from him (or crawling on top of him, etc.). I worry that he may develop a victim complex. I incorrectly thought that having similarly aged playmates was important (I think I read it in Magda Gerber’s book) so actively sought playmates for him. Now he is part of a four baby playgroup which meets at a different house each week. It’s clear to me now (after about 4 sessions) that it’s way more for the moms than the babies. I’ve read Marcy Axness’s book which focuses a lot on babies being either in learning/growth mode or protection mode and I feel like my son is in protection mode for most of the time (mostly because of the loud mommy chatter). I admit that it’s nice to chat with other moms, but it’s definitely not worth putting my son in a stressful situation when he could otherwise spend the time learning and growing. It would now be so awkward to pull out of the group after being so active in putting it together. I also would feel so bossy telling all the moms to be quiet for a while and let the babies work out their conflicts (or engagements) themselves (although they may be into it).

    I admit I also worry about germs. All that hand washing in the NICU (my son was six weeks early) has stayed with me. It would be no fun for him to be sick. I don’t think it’s worth risking if the peer interaction isn’t important.

    Thank you so much. It must take you so much time to read through all these comments. I realize I’m not really asking a clear question but I would love to hear your thoughts. Thank you again!

  10. Janet, How would you deaul with a child that keeps biting my child on teh face at daycare? I don’t think the current startegy they are using of ‘shadowing’ is helping the child.

    Do you think this will impact on my childs trust of others as this keeps happening?

  11. I love this post and I have a question about it. I have twins and my boy often takes toys from his sister. Initially, my reaction was not to intervene or to say to my daughter (if she looked at me), “I see he took your toy. What will you do about it?” My husband, however, started noting that the son took the toy and saying that she’d had it first. He also would take the toy back from our son and give it to our daughter. My husband wanted my daughter to feel that someone was “on her side” and didn’t want our son to think that toy-stealing is OK.

    So, husband and I talked about this and about the RIE approach of sportscasting and nonintervention unless someone could get hurt. Sadly, because of the earlier interventions, our daughter now cries and looks at us when her brother takes a toy she was playing with. She is not usually successful at keeping the toy from him because he has faster reflexes and is able to take what he wants and keep it from her. He also screams loudly as he is doing this.

    Please let me know if you have any thoughts about how to approach this dynamic, now that my daughter seems to “expect” an intervention from us.

    Thank you for your reply.

  12. What about a 20 and 30 month boy that runs up ans snatches toys forcefully from my son who just looks at him. The other boy screams no. This is at my house or my friends house. It is frustrating to see. I try to intervene by sportscasting and gently stopping w my hands as neutral as can be but I can’t always be quick enough despite that I am usually about 1-2 feet away.

  13. Hi. What should I do when my friends 2.5 yo shoves my 29 mo repeatedly when we socialize? We tell him we cannot let him shove but he does it too fast to catch oftentimes. Thanks!

  14. Bailey O'Hara says:

    Hi Janet,
    I read through the comments and noticed you provided a link to a community page, although when I click on the link it says “page not found”. I am the mother to 3 1/2 month old, Ezra, and I am interested in being a part of a small play group. I am fortunate to be able to stay home with him, though I would love to expose him to a small and consistent playgroup with other babies at or around his current stage in development. I have scoured the internet for a playgroup that fosters RIE principals or at least has an undertone of respectful parenting in mind, and I have found nothing! I live in Chico, CA.
    I am not the facilitator type, and I am also a young mom. I feel hesitant and like I may not be taken seriously. Although, I am starting to think I may have to be the one to bring together a play group of this nature. I am wondering if you have any suggestions on how to get the ball rolling, and what that may look like.
    Thank you in advance for reading. And so much appreciation and admiration for the intention and honesty you bring to all the work that you do!

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