Q: My 23-month-old son spends a lot of time playing with my 4-year-old son and his friends. While they play together pretty well, there are times when the 4-year-olds are doing activities that are hard for my 2-year-old to do, such as climbing jungle gyms. Should I find more games for them to play together, or just not worry about it?
A: Congratulations! Given the fact that sibling rivalry is one of the biggest challenges parents face, especially in the early years, you have obviously done something very right if you have boys 2 years apart who want to play together! And your 4-year-old is willing to include his younger brother in play with his friends? Keep it up—you've got some sibling magic going on.
And don't worry about finding activities your boys can do together—there are plenty of choices. By age 2, most children are very involved in the world of pretend and can start to develop stories using props such as dress-up clothes, action figures, stuffed animals, and the like. You can encourage them to develop pretend stories together, for example, by giving them blocks to build with outside. They can use these structures as props for their pretend play: garages for cars, buildings or houses for figurines, caves or barns for animals.
Look for activities that can be easily modified to meet both your 2-year-old's and 4-year-old's different skill levels, like a backyard obstacle course with challenges of varying difficulty. (For example, your older son can climb over a cardboard box while your younger son runs around it.) Games like catching bugs, making mud pies, and building tents out of blankets and furniture will likely appeal to both boys' range of interests and abilities. Outdoor games like ball kicking and bike riding (one on training wheels, the other on a tricycle) may also be great fun for them.
As much as your boys seem to enjoy playing together, keep in mind that it's important to let your older son choose not to play with his younger brother sometimes. Always having to include a sibling can build resentment and ultimately backfire, as the older sibling often ends up feeling like the younger one is an intrusion and a "pain.” It's both fair and reasonable to give your older child some time to spend alone with his friends.
It's equally important for your younger son to have time to play with kids his own age. As much as he may enjoy playing with the older guys, the dynamics are simply different when you are the younger, smaller playmate. He is probably more of a follower in these play situations, and it's likely that his needs and interests are not always at the forefront of their play. Interacting with his peers gives him a chance to feel comfortable playing with kids his own age. It also helps him learn how to negotiate, cooperate, and share in a play environment where there is a more equal balance of power.