Sharing & Taking Turns

joyful toddlersDear Miss Faith,
My daughter and I participate in a toddler play-group and some mothers are very insistent that their children practice sharing, while I tend to think that sharing will come with time. What are your thoughts?

Dear Mama,
I think that our adult idea of sharing (I’ll use it for a little while, then I’ll give it to you even if I’m not done, and you’ll use it for a little while and then give it back again) is a very complex one, and doesn’t make much sense to toddlers. I don’t tend to introduce the idea of sharing to children until age three at the earliest.  However, that’s not to say that there’s nothing you can do before then.  On the contrary!

Taking Turns
While the idea of sharing is difficult, the idea of waiting and taking turns is very approachable, even from the age of 17 months or so. Sharing and taking turns are cousins, and to adults they may seem to be almost the same. But they are not. With sharing, you have to give up an object when you notice that another person wants it, and trust  that they’ll notice that you still want it too, and be generous enough to return it later. With taking turns, there is some pre-determined way of knowing when a person’s turn will be done, and the length of turns is usually enforced in some way, either by an adult (when children are little), by other children (as they get older), or by nature (you get to the bottom of the slide, your food is gone, the music stops, etc.). If a child is waiting for a turn, he can know for sure that if he is patient, it will come. If a child is waiting for another child to share, he may feel anxious that the other child won’t notice or care. I’ve seen this anxiety come out as whining (to make sure that the other child knows that he wants it) or grabbing (to make sure that he gets a chance to play with it). Likewise, if a child feels confident that he has the use of a toy until his turn is done -however that’s determined- then he can usually play happily. But children who think their toy might be taken away, either by another child or a parent who is ‘encouraging’ them to share it when another child displays interest, tend to guard/protect their toys very closely, not wanting to let them go even when their interest in it has waned.

How long should turns last?

The answer is, of course, that it depends on what the turn is for.  If it’s an activity that’s relatively brief for each child, I like to use a song to let them know when their turn will come to an end.  For example, if we’re baking cookies and every child wants a turn stirring the bowl, I’ll sing “All Around the Mulberry Bush” and when the verse ends it’s time to pass it on. For longer turns, I might sing a longer song or start singing a song as the end of the turn approaches. ”One-two, buckle my shoe” is a nice long one that feels like the turn is getting drawn out, even as it comes to a close, and everyone can chorus “A Big Fat Hen!” together. If many children are waiting for a turn for something, I’ll establish an order so that children can know that they won’t be forgotten. I’ll go around the table from left to right, if we’re serving food, for example. If children are at play and everyone wants a horsey-ride on my lap, I’ll announce the children in order, then help them remember who they’re coming after, if they ask.

What about Toys?

Taking turns with toys is different than taking turns with an activity.  How do you determine how long a child’s turn with a toy might be? This feels trickier than a horsey-ride, because ideally children should be able to go deeply into their play with a toy. At the same time, it’s good to see a toy be used by all who want it. How can you balance those? At Rainbow Bridge, I ended up with two rules around toys: 1) You can play with a toy for as long as you like, and 2) once you put it down on the ground or the shelf, then it’s for anyone to play with. At first, this rule feels unfair to many adults. What if one child wants to play with the same toy all day? Won’t this lead to hoarding? In fact, I found the opposite to be true. I saw hoarding and ‘guarding’ of toys take place most often when a child is aware that another child wants they toy and might take it. When children know that they can have it until they are all done, they can relax. On the other side of the interaction, children stopped hovering near the children with desirable toys, because there wasn’t the hope that a) they could grab the toy, or b) an adult would step in and force the child to hand it over. Instead, if Suzy wanted the doll that Jane was playing with, I would help her ask Jane, “Can I play with that when you’re done?” and I’d help Jane say, “Yes, when I’m all done.” Then I’d ask Suzy, “What will you play with while you wait?” and I’d help her find something else to interest her. She didn’t have to hover and ask, “Are you done yet? Are you done?” She would know that that Jane was done when she saw the doll on the floor or on the shelf. At first it was hard for the children to wait, but I would always jump in if they needed help, and soon it was just how things were done.

Unintended Benefits

Once these rules became established with the children, I noticed an unintended benefit: not only was there much less whining and fighting over toys, but the children had learned a really useful skill: finding something else to do while they waited. This not only made the process of waiting easier and more enjoyable, but it spilled over into other areas; for instance, when I couldn’t get a toy down from a high shelf because I was washing dishes, or I couldn’t tie a cape because I was changing a diaper, Johnny would find something else to do until I was free. When the sandbox was too full of children to drive the dump-truck around in it, Sam was able to find something else to do instead. The children were learning to defer gratification, a skill which, if displayed at age four has shown long-term effects on later success in life (read about Mischel’s marshmallow study here). The children were able to enjoy their days more, and I was able to enjoy the children more, as well.


Warmly, ~Miss Faith


  1. You’ve “shared” some great insight on some awkward developmental processes. One thing I’ve found effective to get children used to the idea of taking turns is board games. I started playing one-on-one with a single child, so the wait for the next turn wasn’t too long. Then gradually moved on to three- and then four-player games.

    Thanks for the posts.

    The Creativity Institute

    • This is a great idea, Gwynn! Thanks for sharing. One “taking turns” game that I’ll do with kids who might be too little for board games still is to get a bowl or bucket of dried beans, and hide little treasures inside (these can just be things from around the playroom or kitchen). Then you take turns plunging your hand into the beans and finding a treasure to hold. Once all of the treasures have been found, you can take turns putting them back one by one, also. I’ve had kids as young as 18 months or as old as 3-4yrs really enjoy this game.

  2. Kristine says

    Thank you so much for creating this blog, I’ve really gained new insight and perspective from you. My 2.5 year old is learning to take turns with his 9 month old brother and I am going to try your idea about letting the child determine when their turn is over (the 2.5 year old is a toy hoarder so I’m hoping this may help). I was wondering if you have any ideas to try when we are at a play date or at the library and other moms insist on other turn taking techniques (using a timer) for taking turns with toys. I’ve found the issue with taking turns is not just between the children, but also the expectations and parenting styles of the parents. It’s a tricky dance.

    • Kristine, Thanks for writing. And yes, navigating the terrain with other parents can definitely be a tricky dance! The good news is that kids “get it” really early that different people and different places have different rules. It can just be helpful to acknowledge the differences and make them explicit. So you might say, “At home it’s your turn until you put it down, but at the library you need to give a toy to another child if she asks for a turn.” If your little guy is upset, you could try a couple of things: 1) Help him say, “You can have a turn when I’m all done;” 2) Suggest that he offer another toy to the child and see if she’s content with that (this is often quite effective); 3) Help the two kids interact with the toy together (can be tricky with other parents watching), or 4) Say a little rhyme to let him know when his turn is over, and then if he doesn’t hand it over, you might say, “It’s her turn now. Will you give it to her, or do you need some help?” And if he’s upset to see it go, help him to find another toy to play with, even if it’s not as good.


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