When we were kids, my brothers and I routinely produced “Julia’s Workout,” an imaginary exercise show filmed in our parents’ basement. I was the leotard-clad talent, my older brother was the cameraman, and my younger brother did whatever we told him to do.
I’m sure we sometimes balked when our parents shuffled us down to the basement together, but their effort was well worth it. To this day, “Julia’s Workout” is the source of laughter and fond memories.
“Doing things together is what makes the attachment between [siblings] grow,” says Judy Dunn, a child development expert and author of “From One Child to Two.”
“Younger siblings learn a lot from older siblings and model older siblings’ behaviors,” says Tawny Sanabria, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Buckley, Wash. “When they’re able to play together ... the learning process of the younger siblings is just greatly enhanced.”
So how can parents make sibling play appealing? Here are five useful tips:
Let the older child know your expectations
Whether in a family meeting or an informal conversation, express your desire for her to spend time with her siblings. “I asked my older children to give me a gift of service: one hour of play time with a younger sibling,” says Marilyn Every, a Seattle mother and grandmother.
Make sure you give your older child enough one-on-one attention
“Chances are, after Johnny has had you so completely to himself, he will be more generously disposed toward his siblings,” write Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish in their book “Siblings Without Rivalry.”
Tell them how much their younger siblings look up to them
Seattle mom Erika Gardner’s parents used this tactic to get her to play with her younger sister. “My ego was really flattered, so I took it upon [myself] to teach her all I knew,” she says.
Provide them with time for unstructured play
Marni Campbell, a high school principal and mother of three in Seattle, recommends that parents “don’t prioritize peer-to-peer socializing, such as classes, day camps, etc. ... over just having [their] kids hang out with each other.” Be willing to show them how to enjoy unstructured play together. If you ask an older child to take her little brother outside to play baseball, it might seem boring. But if you come along and get them started, it’s suddenly a fun event.
“They won’t be able to play together properly unless you’ve taught them how,” says Jo Frost, author of “Supernanny: How to Get the Best from Your Children.” You may even need to provide the older child with an actual list of activities that would be fun.
Don’t force too much togetherness with siblings
Encourage sibling play when your older child is in a good mood and not preoccupied with something else. Then watch for cues that the kids have had enough. “My older child usually lets me know when it’s time for alone time because she starts getting frustrated more easily, she gets short with her younger sibling, and she irritates more easily,” says Jennie Stanfield, a Seattle mother of two.
“Different children at different times in their lives are better off with less ‘togetherness,’” say Faber and Mazlish. “With enough time apart, siblings might even begin to look good to each other.”
Activities for all ages
“Just as we like to share the fun things we did as kids with our children, the oldest siblings like to ‘play’ like they are littler once in a while, too,” says Beth Smith, a Seattle mother of three. Her children, ages 13, 11 and 3 years old, enjoy art projects, because “they can do their own thing in a parallel-play type of situation,” she says.
Find something the older sibling enjoys and put them in charge of teaching it to the younger child, whether it’s making a movie, hosting an informal preschool or playing Frisbee.
Other ideas? Set out a puzzle and have the younger sibling find all the straight-edged pieces while the older sibling puts it together. Pull out toys the older child had when he was his sibling’s age. Get him to talk about how much fun he had with them while he shows the younger child how to use them. Let them play board or card games, “things that are going to bring them around the table,” says Sanabria.
Encourage them to build a fort, put on a play, dress up in old Halloween costumes or just goof around outside.
“Playing outside ... is always easier than playing inside,” says Smith. “They all can find their place out there, on neutral territory.”
Getting older and younger siblings to play together may take a little extra work at first, but it will pay off. After all, in my family, a world without “Julia’s Workout” would be a dark one indeed.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2009 and updated in 2020.