0 to 2 "MY DOLL" by Carla Poole

"YOU ARE THE best baby! " exclaims Dana's teacher, as she bundles her up to go outside. Four-month-old Dana beams, adding a happy "Ba! Ba! Ba!" In this loving relationship, Dana feels special and connected to a nurturing adult. This possessive feeling of my teacher, as well as my mommy, builds the baby's core sense of self. These feelings dominate early development, as they should. Without a healthy sense of me and mine, a toddler cannot learn to let go and share with others.

Early Give-and-Take

As a baby's sense of self develops, she begins to experiment with exchanging objects with others. Twelve-month-old Shanequa and her teacher are playing on the floor with toys. Shanequa leans over, picks up a rattle, and shakes it with a gleeful smile on her face. Her teacher smiles back, saying, "I see you like the sound you are making! " The baby hands the rattle to her teacher, lets her hold it for a few seconds, and promptly takes it back. They play this give-and-take game for a few minutes. The I baby is learning that she can manipulate an object and that she has some control over her interactions with her teacher. She is in the earliest stages of practicing turn taking-and she needs a trusted partner who will follow her lead.

When Sharing's Too Hard!

As the baby becomes a toddler, she may have a favorite object that she carries with her: the indispensable blankie or "lovey." This object represents all the strong feelings of ownership and love that the toddler has for important adults-most often her parents, but sometimes a grandparent or relative who is raising her. This beloved object is not something to be shared or even parted with! It comforts the toddler because she has control over it. If these important feelings of ownership toward a "lovey" are respected, other objects, such as toys, are less likely to be hoarded.

Making Sense of the World

Sometimes the sights and sounds of daily life can be very confusing for a young toddler. They are not sure, for example, if a toy that is out of sight still exists. So, the child will hold onto objects, hoping that a very loud "Mine!" will provide at least some sense of order. Fifteen-month-old Kate, for instance, clutches a doll to her chest, yelling, "Mine!" as another toddler approaches her. Although the doll is not Kate's "lovey," it has temporarily taken on some of the deep feelings she has about herself and the people who care for her. She might feel that she will never see or touch the doll again if she lets another toddler take it. Toddlers struggle to understand the world around them and to handle their strong feelings. You can reassure Kate ("You really want to hold that dolly!") and include her friend by offering another doll.

Conflicts: Opportunities for Learning

Try to have duplicates of attractive toys on hand, if possible. This will help toddlers feel less possessive. Inevitably, though, a toddler will sometimes want the same toy that another toddler has. The issue is not really the red truck. The real issue is, who will control the situation? Toddlers experiment to see whom they can dominate and who will dominate them. Your role as the teacher is to help each child feel that she is a respected member of the group. Use language to explain, "John has the red ball right now. You can have it when he is finished." Allowing John to feel ownership of the ball actually makes it easier for him to give it to his friend. he feels in control. he is the one choosing to let go of the desired toy. And he can feel good about making his friend happy when he does give her a turn. all of us enjoy feeling in control and pleasing others, at least some of the time, and, for a toddler, these are especially important feelings.

Learning to share is a very gradual process. First the toddler must have positive feelings of ownership and consistent relationships with loving adults. Then she must understand that objects are permanent-that they continue to exist even when they're out of sight, and that they return unchanged. Finally, feelings of empathy develop as the 2-year-old becomes more aware of other people's feelings. Only then can she experience the pleasure that sharing with friends can bring.

What You Can Do

Respect early feelings of ownership. Allow toddlers to bring special objects, such as a blankie or stuffed animal, from home.

Refrain from forcing toddlers to share. Talk them through struggles, and follow up with the child who has to wait for a turn. She might have moved on to something else, but be respectful and check in.

Follow the child's lead when she attempts to engage you in games of give-and-take.

3 to 4: "GIVE ME THAT PURSE!" by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

WHILE PLAYING IN THE HOUSE- keeping center, 4-year-old Anna tells 3-year-old Brittany, "I want the blue purse, now!" Ignoring her, Brittany keeps playing. Anna then tugs on the purse. Brittany pulls the purse back, clutches it, and walks away. Now Anna yells, "I'm bigger. You should give me the big blue purse." Brittany shouts back, "No!" Finally, Anna negotiates, "If I give you my purse with the sparkles, will you give me the blue one?" Brittany thinks about the proposal, then slowly hands over the blue purse, while reminding Anna, "You only get it for today!"

Identifying Common Conflicts

Conflicts over possessions, such as toys and play materials, are the most common type of dispute for preschoolers. Usually, these struggles are over in less than a minute, and the threes and fours are able to resolve the situations by themselves, with some children giving in or giving up.

Resolving Conflicts

When preschool children are in competition for toys, space, or attention from others, and feeling very possessive, they may become physical and hit each other or have a tug-of-war with the materials. If conflicts escalate, teachers may need to step in so no one is injured and items are not broken while the preschoolers work through the situation. However, for most of their struggles, such as those over taking turns and sharing possessions, preschoolers try out a variety of tactics. For those attempting to obtain something, strategies may include those used by Anna: trying to take the item, giving a verbal command or threat, or negotiating. Methods used by a child who possesses the desired item, as was the case with Brittany, may be to ignore the request, give up the object, verbally refuse to comply, resist in physical ways, or make counterproposals.

Living in an Egocentric World

What causes young children to feel so possessive of their playthings? Still egocentric, a 3-year-old does not yet have a well-developed ability to put herself in another's place. A child may carefully guard her toys, as Brittany did, because she believes that allowing someone else to use something is actually giving it away. Most young threes feel vulnerable about losing their possessions. Because they think everything revolves around themselves, when they see all of the toys at school, they think they are "mine." As a result, if they wish to play with a toy being used by another child, they may try to take it. Likewise, if a 3-year-old is playing with a toy, they are likely to try to protect it.

Experiencing Ownership

Before preschoolers like Anna and Brittany are able to share or take turns, usually beginning around age 3, they need to feel secure with their own things. They need to know that no matter who might use them, the objects belong to them. And they need to have many opportunities to experience ownership before they can understand another person's right to own something. This can be difficult for preschoolers to comprehend, especially when a child considers objects from home to be "mine," but playthings at school are "ours," belonging to everyone. For school playthings, children must discover that others may want to play with things that they want and that they have the same claim to the items.

Learning How to Take Turns

By 3 ½ to 4 years of age, most children have had enough experience playing with other children that they can begin to take turns with an item or share it with others. They may begin to adjust their actions to meet the needs of others, as in the girls' negotiations with the purses. Children may also decide to play cooperatively with the same playthings, such as when three boys decide to combine their blocks to build a parking garage.

What You Can Do

Help children learn to ask permission. To help avoid conflicts when one child has selected an item to play with, no one else should be allowed to use it unless they ask for and receive permission from that child.

Encourage working together. When several children want to use the same object, such as a wagon, show them how to take turns (two children ride in the back, while the third one pulls).

Introduce new playthings. When there is a new toy in the classroom, discuss it at group time, and make suggestions about ways that everyone can have a turn playing with it (by signing up, having two children play together, etc.).

Implement some turn-taking strategies. When there is only one of something special, such as a computer, children often feel possessive of it and don't readily let others have a turn with it. Try using a time limit, or indicate a specific number of times something can be used before the next person has a turn.

5 to 6: "I HAD THEM FIRST!" by Ellen Booth Church

Sometimes it's harder for a kindergartner to share a friend than to share a toy. 

REBECCA IS HAPPILY PLAYING WITH PARQUETRY blocks when a friend calls her over to the art table to show her his project. Rebecca gets so excited by the art activity that she stays for a while. But when she returns to the blocks, she is upset to find Raul playing with them. "I had them first. They're mine! Give them back now!"

Feelings of possessiveness, and even entitlement, can run strong in the kindergarten year. But at the same time, children are developmentally mature enough to learn how to deal with these feelings. It just takes practice and the patience and guidance of their teachers.

I See What Happened

Kindergartners are at a transitional stage. They have some of the egocentric behaviors familiar in preschool, but also the empathy awareness of fairness for all. In difficult situations, 5- and 6-year-olds are beginning to think beyond themselves, although not always right away! When asked to, they can observe and consider the actions of others and think about the other child's perspective, as well as their own. Rebecca's teacher helped her see that Raul thought she wasn't interested in the parquetry blocks, because she went to another learning center. She asked Rebecca what she would think if she came to the table and found that the blocks were out, but no one was there. While it was difficult to admit, Rebecca could see what happened. Her ability to understand is due, in part, to her developing sense of the passage of time. It allowed her to consider things that happened "before" and "later." After talking together about the problem, Raul and Rebecca decided that he could continue playing with the blocks and Rebecca would go back to the art table for a while. The teacher suggested that they set a timer to indicate when Rebecca could come back to play with the parquetry blocks.

I'm in Control

The issue of control is often at the core of possessive behavior. Young children frequently feel that they do not have much control in their lives. They are told when to eat, go to bed, get up, go to school, etc. Understandably, 5- and 6-year-olds like to feel that they have some power, even if it is just over their possessions. You can help by inviting them to cooperatively problem solve when disputes over possessions arise. Instead of telling children who had it first or whose turn it is, invite them to help you figure out what is fair for everyone concerned. Some children who have not had a great deal of school experience before kindergarten have difficulty sharing classroom materials. They may even hoard them without playing with them. Learning how to share possessions is a key part of the kindergarten experience. That is one reason why it's important for children to have a well-defined space or cubby to keep their personal belongings. This helps them differentiate between classroom objects and their own things. It also helps them decide if and when they want to share a possession from home.

You're Mine!

Possessiveness is not always about things. As they are becoming more socially aware, 5- and 6-year-olds can also be possessive about friends. In fact, it is not unusual to hear children arguing about best friends. Friendships and collaborations are important to children at this point in the kindergarten year. Children have been together long enough to see the value of their friends and the ways to make close connections. Unfortunately, sometimes it is harder for kindergartners to share a friend than a toy. It is important for teachers to create opportunities each day for children to work and play with different classmates. Mix things up at large- or small-group time, and during outdoor games and transitions. This will allow children to experience and appreciate the unique diversity of their class, while avoiding the unpleasantness and possessiveness of cliques.

The goal at this stage of development is for children to develop a generosity of spirit that allows them to have relaxed interactions with other children. By verbally reinforcing generosity, and demonstrating it yourself, you will be creating a classroom atmosphere that is caring, open, and fair.

What You Can Do

  • Reinforce children's behavior when they generously share classroom and personal materials.
  • Clearly define your policy on bringing toys from home, and provide space for children's personal storage.
  • Use a timer to help children fairly divide time with a toy.
  • Create opportunities each day for children to work and play with different classmates and materials.