Baby Teamwork (Sharing Because They Want To)

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When we stay out of the way while babies play and allow them to interact authentically, we can expect the unexpected. Over the years, as both a parent and RIE class facilitator, I’ve made a conscious effort to observe sensitively, keep an open mind about what play should “look like”, and intervene only minimally (when babies might hurt each other). I’ve been rewarded with more surprising, enlightening moments than I could ever count. But the scene recorded in this video was a first for me, and it completely blew me away.

From early infancy onward there will be occasional moments when two children connect — play “together” — for a few moments, rather than alone or side by side as they usually do. This begins to happen more often toward the end of the second year and into the third. (Our classes generally end when the children are 2 ½ to 3 years old.)  “Together” play might begin as an exploration of another infant’s face, hair or body and evolve into giving and/or taking toys, imitation of one another’s activity, or a spontaneous game of chase. Very occasionally, I see toddlers playing in a cooperative manner – for example, stacking blocks or working on a puzzle together. It’s usually the older toddlers and lasts only a minute or two.

So when I spotted these 1 year olds (!) playing cooperatively and peacefully, and it continued, I was thrilled to have my camera handy. These babies played together for a whopping 7 minutes (though I’ve edited this video to 1 ½ minutes to show just some highlights.)  Just thinking about this scene fills me with hope (for future UN delegates, among other things).

Cooperative play is possible when we…

Trust babies to self-direct play and interact freely. Adults shouldn’t nudge them to play together (or even give them play suggestions), insist they “share”, play “nicely”, “take turns” or “give the toy back”. Stay out of their way, observe attentively and intervene only if a child might hurt another. Allow children to resolve minor conflicts (over toys, etc.)

Model gentleness and patience when we need to intervene, rather than scolding, blaming, separating babies, reacting angrily (Here’s a great video example)

Provide social opportunities in familiar play environments when possible (same place, same people, same rules, similar time of day)

Make it a safe play space so that children feel secure and interruptions for safety reasons are rare.

Perceive babies as whole people capable, valued citizens of the world, talk to and treat them as such. Model empathy and generosity.

“Children raised with respect and inner direction tend to play well in groups, at times quite peacefully, each involved in her own project or involved with the other chidren.” –Magda Gerber

“When we adults think of children, there is a simple truth which we ignore: childhood is not preparation for life; childhood is life. A child isn’t getting ready to live; a child is living. …we have forgotten, if indeed we ever knew, that a child is an active participating and contributing member of society from the time he is born. Childhood isn’t a time when he is molded into a human who will then live life; he is a human who is living life.” -Professor T. Ripaldi

“When we make a child share, it is not sharing.” -Gerber


Learn more about this respectful and effective approach to socialization in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting


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

  1. YES! My son,is sharing with other babies on the playground if given the time to “scope them out” and often it escalates to a kind of cooperative play. Its amazing, my 18m old was playing soccer with another 18m when we gave them a chance to just do whatever. They were chasing the ball together it was amazing.

    But my biggest problem is how to let this occur without the other parent/nanny/granny hovering over shoulders. And telling their child “give the boy your toy and he will give you his” And I’ve tried to say, in a kind of naive respectful way “I always thought they just work it out?” and I get the “oh no, they are greedy, they will never learn to share that way” … Okay I don’t know these women, they are random playground encounters in a busy urban playground. We visit at least 3 different ones a week. But this happens almost each time and I cringe.

    I also don’t push him to share, or take toys, in fact I’m very careful he not take toys without permission. But it is normal for babies to “steal” each other toys and guardians give a knowing wink and is all fine. But he’s lost in this, as he’s trying to negotiate the toy he wants from the babies and I’m not sure how much I should step in.

  2. What a sweet video, Janet. It’s such a pleasure to watch toddlers interact with one another candidly, and I find that I learn so much about my own toddler and her personality when I have the opportunity to do so. I absolutely love that Ripaldi quote, too: “he is a human who is living life.”

  3. LOVE this. I recently witnessed a wonderful and very interesting birth of a friendship between my daughter and her cousin who meet each other properly for the first time this summer. My daughter is 2.9mths and her cousin is 3 yrs old and after ignoring each other mostly the first hour, they ended up jostling over a kids broom. My daughter had been playing with it and would not let it go when her cousin tried to take it away from her. Her cousin in the end gave up but was extremely upset. No parent intervened during the tussle but I did go to my daughter after and quietly said “Liv looks upset. Do you want to give her the broom? You don’t have to, but it might cheer her up.” Saoirse nodded and decided to give it to her and Liv of course stopped crying and said thank you.

    After dinner my daughter asked Liv if she would like to come and watch the movie with her (all the other older cousins were watching in the other room). Liv beamed and said yes. At this point Liv still had the broom plus a mop and was about to offer Saoirse the mop but looked back at the broom and decided to give her that instead. Saoirse smiled, said thank you and off they went together.

    I don’t know if I did the right thing by saying something or if I used the right words, but had Saoirse originally said no to giving Liv the toy I would have said that’s OK, maybe later when you are done playing with it. BUT her decision was wonderful to witness because they never once fought over a toy again. They shared everything in tandem during the whole 2 wks they were together and became the best of friends.

    1. Natalia, I’d say you handled this perfectly. Thanks for sharing a good story!

  4. Hi Janet – what suggestions do you have for interactions between children of different ages? Our girls are now 3 1/2 years old (Charlotte) and 1 year old (Greta). For the most part their interactions are pleasant with Charlotte being helpful, polite and caring. However, there are times when Charlotte will just take toys away from Greta. We have tried talking about how that will make Greta sad and offering suggestions for waiting until it’s her turn, or offering a toy swap or trade. And there are also times when Greta tries to take something that Charlotte is engaged in.

    I’m just not sure how to best handle these situations and I find myself embarassed when it happens in front of people and I don’t feel I have a good way to respond.


    1. Hi Amanda! Consider yourself blessed that “For the most part their interactions are pleasant with Charlotte being helpful, polite and caring”. You must be doing something wonderfully right! Also, remember that siblings need to form a relationship independent of us. As long as they aren’t hurting each other, I would let them squabble. Acknowledge feelings, but try not to lay on the guilt, like… “Look how sad you made your sister”. Our children see all of that on their own and commenting about it is usually unnecessary and can make it seem to a child as if we’re “taking sides”.

      Interestingly, when your girls become more expressive they will probably say things like, “stay out of it, Mum!” even if they were screaming and seemed to desperately need your help a moment before. Mine always did that and it never ceased to amaze me…. When the girls squabble in public, relax. Anyone with more than one child (or who grew up with siblings) knows that sibling arguments are perfectly normal… Try to stay calm so that you aren’t adding any fuel to the fire.:)

  5. Yes! Thank you for highlighting this Janet! I observe this everyday. My boys are experimenting with the social aspect especially, and are much more vocal, yet doing much of the same things. Such an important aspect that can be overlooked.

  6. Wow that video is amazing. Seeing the two little girls play so closely like that was really neat! My little baby has trouble keeping toys because her toddler brother usually decides that the toys he wants are what she has.

    I did have an nice chance to see my baby play with two cousins that were each very close in age similar to this though. They really are able to self direct and in general not hurt each other, and have a positive experience. The biggest help though with small babies I have seen is when they can all at least crawl, so they can try and leave if they want!

    1. Alison, yes, absolutely! Mobility makes a big difference in a child’s level of comfort and autonomy and allows the adult to take a little step back, trust more. It’s also much easier to gauge what a mobile baby wants, i.e., if they need mom or dad they can come to you.

  7. This is totally what has happened between my son and his little friend. They are the same age (2Omos), and they play co-operatively and enthusiastically (and sometimes fight and squabble too!). They play all sorts of games and I only wish I could capture them on video but the video camera is too distracting.

    My friend and I marvel at the thought that the boys would somehow be incapable of being in relationship with each other. That time again you read that children of this age are incapable of cooperative, imaginative play and instead can only engage in parallel play. I actually find it shocking and a terrible underestimation of children’s skills and value as human beings. I do not think our boys are remotedly gifted or special in any way. I think any child given the chance to develop in relationship (instead of as an object) would develop this way.

    The other night, I was watching both boys and my son was pulling the other boy around on a ride-on car we have. They very much enjoyed that game. They play hide and seek and surprise it each, gleefully screaming when the other jumps out from behind something. They fight over toys and they offer each other toys and pet each other and rough house. They definitely play together and I do not understand how this could be any different! They are in relationship!

    Sometimes my friend and I have to really think about how to continue to model behaviour and language to reflect conflict that occurs in the play setting, but mostly we just sit back and let them have a relationship, like we have since they were very, very small. But I guess that is what makes RIE different– the assumption that infants and toddlers are whole beings with the ability to have relationships. Both boys have been raised in the same way and I trust that they figure things out as they mature. It is a joy to watch. Sometimes we get so used to being in our own little RIE world that it comes as a real shock when we hear others speak to their children, or see how others assume children will behave. What a shame!

  8. So beautiful! (And now I have to keep my eyes out for a good tower stacking toy for my daughter– such experimentation and coordination! Have you ever done a post about toys you recommend?)

    This post makes me think about an interaction my 11-mos-old daughter recently had with her 23-mos-old cousin. Her cousin is very much in a “MINE!” stage, so literally any time my daughter starts to play with anything, her cousin immediately tries to take it away. My daughter N. started to play with some coasters, cousin Y. swooped in shouting “it’s mine! It’s mine!” I said to cousin, “Y., N. doesn’t know how to play with these coasters, can you show her how?” (Ok, I don’t really believe that you need to “know” how to play with something… but I was speaking a language to the cousin that my daughter doesn’t understand yet, so I don’t think I was sending any messages that were too destructive.) Y. paused, looked at N., then modeled nibbling on the coaster. I said to my daughter (still in Y’s language, since I was actually saying it for Y’s benefit), “OH! See? Look at what Y’s doing! That’s how you play with these!” They played together happily for a bit, and Y. let my daughter keep the coasters. At the time, I felt like that was a good way to gently change the dynamic between them from competitive to cooperative, though as I type this out I wonder if I was being deceptive with Y. and interfering too much. What do you think?

    (Later that evening Y. tried to help N. by bringing her to me, first by attempting to lift up my 28-lb baby by the armpits and then by the hair, but that’s another story!)

  9. Hi!

    I love your post and have a related question for you. My daughter has had playdates with a group of other similar age children since they were about 3 weeks old. Needless to say, they know each other quite well! Play has evolved quite a bit since we started. Some of the kids are a bit more aggressive than my daughter. When something is taken from her mid play or when she feels that someone will take the object that she is playing with. She automatically breaks into tears. To this point, I have been explaining to her that I know that she wants to play with the toy and now so and so has it and is going to play with it. Any other suggestions on how I should handle these situations?

  10. I really like the video link of the 2 younger babies. Before I discovered your site, and philosophies, I would’ve thought of that as the blond baby “taking” the other baby’s toy. Most parents would step in and say, “No, no, give that back to her,” instead of just letting them play together and work it out themselves. I can’t wait to try some of the RIE principles with my next baby. Knowing what I know now, I feel that I have created some of my child’s tendencies and insecurities.

  11. At my son’s one year old ‘party’ (one friend and her parents!) we left him and his friend to play as they pleased while we chatted around the table. I had to hold back my laughter and delight when they clearly had some chatter happening, then to my surprise his friend (they are two very different children) squealed and threw a toy infront of him… he ignored it the first time. Then she did it again and he grabbed her nappy and turned her around to face the other way! It felt like he was mimicking us when he bites or grabs us or the cats? I usually say “no” and remove him gently. She was pretty unbothered about it thankfully. It is possibly a personality thing, but her father and carer (never seen her mum do this) often force her to do things like hug, drink water etc and I wonder if her frustrated behavior is due to this? My babe just hasn’t got into throwing anything yet, he will place it down or behind him… or just drop it off his high chair. Often he holds food out he does not want to put it back in my hand or on the plate. I did come across your site later than I would have liked but its still been awesome, my biggest problem is other parents in play groups being all funny about kids grabbing each other toys! If i get an opening I might mention we could leave them to it and only intervene when there is clearly some tears or over tired bubbas…

  12. Just joining in RIE. I care for two girls, ages 1& 2. Would love to be included

  13. I use this exact video when teaching concepts about effective observation skills and child development. It’s fabulous when trying to teach principals of ELF/ELECT that we are using in child cares in Ontario, CANADA

  14. Ruth Mason says:

    Thank you, Janet! Love this. Last week, for the first time, two one-year-olds in our parent-infant class handed a toy back and forth to each other about 7-8 times. By the time I grabbed my phone to tape it, they were on to each laying with their own toys but right across from each other. I’m finding that even though we have a big play space the babies will find each other many times during the hour we’re together and watch each other, touch each other or play next to one another. Years ago, inspired by my daughter’s interactions with another baby who was clearly a “friend,” I wrote an article in Parents Magazine called First Friends reprinted here in which I reported on the fact that as opposed to what the experts were saying, babies can become “friends” (if we widen the concept) with other babies. Ilana and Matthew went on to become fast friends as toddlers and young children.

  15. A very beautiful article and we have applied it many times. But, it will be interesting to know your advice on this.I recently had an experience when the mother of the kid intervened only when her daughter was in tears while playing and did not want to share and conveniently ignore when it was the other way. I was amazed at how silent and cold she became when the other kid cried. I did not know how to handle the situation and was forced to drag my kid away from that place. I did not feel good but I could not possibly reason out with her!

  16. Gina Brodtmann says:

    Janet, I love the quote you put at the end of this article. The one by Ripaldi. I can’t find any info on who this person is. Can you point me in the right direction? I’d love to learn more. Thanks for all you do!

  17. What do I do ina situation where the object is meant to be shared, for example a slide, or a water table. My daughter who is 18 mo gets upset whenever someone is behind her on a slide (this is a small age appropriate slide) or even just lining up behind her, or when they start playing with her water table when she’s also playing with it. She is known to push so I always intervene at that point (which works like a charm to just tell her that I won’t let her do that) but then she still whines and gets upset and stops in her tracks (which gets awkward when she’s on a slide and others are waiting). How can I help her get past this without forcing her to “share”?

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