Little ones learn a lot every day just by moving through the world - being in new situations, being exposed to new ideas, and observing the people around them. your baby learns so much from you, just by watching you go about your day, and when she's playing with older kids, your toddler will learn from them, too.
Older children can inspire
Older kids can be role models for younger children in amazing ways. If your baby sees a big kid doing things that she might be almost ready to do herself - like building a really tall block tower or climbing up a playground slide - she will often try her darnedest to do the same thing herself. Toddlers often feel challenged to try new things because, hey, that big kid did it and it looked super cool!
Older children can teach
One thing that makes slightly older kids great teachers for toddlers is that they’ll often try to help a little - but not too much - which will often give a young child just the boost that they need to try something tricky, while still allowing space for a toddler to be challenged to try and figure out how to do things on their own. And because older children are still children, they will often explain things to little ones in ways that work best for a toddler. For example, if a big kid needs to explain just how a certain toy works, they’ll do so as someone who has figured out how to use that same toy pretty recently themselves.
It can lead to some really creative play
When big kids play with little kids, there is often less competition thrown into the mix than when two children of the same age play together, and there's another interesting dynamic in the mix that's not always seen when that same big kid or that same toddler engage with playmates of their own age. Again, it can lead little ones to be challenged to engage in some new behaviors and learn from the big one and lead older children to thoughtfully teach the younger child. But often both kiddos will be challenged to engage with each other in some really interesting ways - to meet in the middle if you will - in terms of what sort of play can take place. And older children may also engage in far sillier than they might normally with a peer, which is super fun for all involved!
Some safety concerns to keep in mind
Mixed-age play like this can a great experience for older and younger children. It fosters compassion and important teaching and nurturing skills, and gives older children the chance to learn more about the world as they work to explain its complexities to little ones. There are also some safety concerns you’ll want to keep in mind when a younger child plays with the big kids.
Older children can be fantastic teachers, but because they're still kids, and they might not always be aware of safety concerns in the same way that a parent would be. They might, for example, not realize that a toddler is playing with toy parts that are too small, or that a toddler might get hurt if she tries the same wild leap from the top of a playground toy that an older kid can handle no problem.
Toddlers are also still learning important lessons like how to share, how to recognize and regulate their feelings, what it means to treat others with kindness, and how not to act aggressively if they get upset. It’s not uncommon for toddlers who are learning these important lessons to lash out at a playmate who they're afraid has taken a favorite toy away, or even just to be rougher than necessary because they think it’s fun. Big kids don't always know how to handle this kind of unsocialized behavior, and while it's a great way for younger children to learn about socializing, it can be a good idea to keep an eye on interactions, to make sure no one loses their temper.
When your baby is playing with big kids, it’s always your best bet to handle the situation in much the same way you would if your toddler were playing with another little one her own age - stay close, observe the play, and step in if you need to. Even if a conflict arises, you don’t even necessarily have to jump in immediately - see if the kids can work things out on their own. But if there is a safety concern, you should be close enough to be able to step in to prevent unnecessary ouchies. And if you see any less-than-ideal behavior at play - if, say, your toddler decides to scratch their playmate when they get upset - you’ll want to be able to step intervene - by modeling just what it means to share, by talking about her feelings, and reminding them of what sort of behavior is appropriate when feeling upset and what just isn't okay.
With just a little help from you, your baby is more than capable of enjoying quality playtime with plenty of good friends - of all ages!