Turn-taking and sharing are both tricky, and adults have a tendency to ask children to do it long before they’re ready—and without enough help. It’s easy to tell a child “please share with your friend,” but it’s another thing entirely for them to know how to do it—and to be ready.
It's important to know the differences between turn-taking and sharing, and to have a sense of when children are ready for each—and what kind of support they need along the way.
What's the difference between taking turns and sharing?
About turn taking
Children may be cognitively and developmentally ready to start taking turns at around age two, but even this is quite early and will require help. Turn-taking at this age will almost always need to be heavily supported and guided by an adult, as children are in the early stages of learning about the world outside their own minds. Parallel play will still be quite common for some time, as will "onlooker play"—when children show an interest in the play of others but don't yet join.
Taking turns can be a challenge for young kids because it might feel unpredictable: what are the rules? Why do we take turns with certain objects and not others? Why do we have to do this at all? It also can feel like a constant disappointment, in that children have a beloved item taken from them every few minutes while taking turns.
What about sharing?
Sharing is a complex collaborative goal, and doesn't start to truly be present until children are four or even older. Even then, it often needs to be supported. Children at this age are often engaging in what's known as "associative play," where they are playing next to one another with the same materials, but aren't actively working together towards a goal.
When children are four and five, they move closer to "cooperative play," as they are now more able to be flexible with possession. Their collaborative abilities increase as they've now had practice, they are cognitively ready for more complex types of play, and their social awareness is beginning to sharpen. Sharing starts to take on more nuance during this stage of play, but it often remains a challenge.
What are some ways to teach a child how to wait their turn?
All ways of helping build a child's patience take time, and are worthwhile supports to put in place—waiting simply isn't easy. When anticipating a play date or any situation where sharing, turn-taking, and waiting are likely to happen, here are a few things to consider:
- Narrate and preview: talk about what's happening and what's about to happen, so it's not a surprise: "you're playing with the truck now, and in two minutes it's going to be Maria's turn, and she will get to play with it for awhile." The concept of time is still vague, but this helps children start gaining a better sense of it.
- Consider the way you frame sharing. If you ask two children to take turns to build the tallest tower possible, it supports not only their turn-taking and sharing but also their social play. If you describe and support it as a communal, cooperative endeavor, children are more likely to have fun together.
- Provide duplicates when possible. If you happen to have more than one of a favorite object, provide them both—this way, sharing isn’t needed. Finding times when children have express permission not to share can feel freeing for them. You can also select a few beloved toys (loveys, blankets) and make them off-limits, which respects the deep connection your child has with them.
- Use a visual timer. A sand timer works great for this, and there are other types of timers that show time passing by in a pleasing visual way (liquid drop timers, lava lamp timers, and ones that resemble a typical timer but show the minutes ticking away in red).