It’s not easy for young children to wait their turn. Fortunately, learning to take turns can be fun!
It’s not always easy for young children to wait their turn. But turn-taking is an essential social skill that helps kids get along with others, especially at daycare and at school.
Why do children find it hard to wait their turn?
Since children are primarily focused on their own needs, they find it difficult to maintain self-control, put themselves in other people’s shoes, and wait their turn. This is perfectly normal, as their brains are still developing.
The part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and reasoning isn’t developed enough to do its job properly. That’s why lining up at the slide can be a real challenge for a toddler!
Turn-taking will come in handy once your child is in kindergarten.
As children get older, they find it easier to wait their turn and have fewer conflicts with others. They’re also better at following rules because they’re increasingly able to control their impulses. But they need help to get there!
How to help your child wait their turn
- Play games that involve taking turns. You can teach your little one how to take turns as soon as they’re 18 months old. For example, you can play peekaboo or throw a ball back and forth. You can also complete a puzzle or build a block tower together. Once your child is 2, you can introduce them to board games.
- Practise taking turns in everyday life. For example, before a meal, you can invite your child to wash their hands first. Say something like: “It’s your turn to wash your hands. I’ll go next.” Slowly but surely, your child will understand that some activities must be done one at a time.
- Acknowledge your child’s emotions. If your child is getting impatient, try to put their emotions into words: “I know you’re tired of waiting, but it will be your turn soon.” They’ll be more willing to wait if they feel understood.
- Help your child measure time with clear cues. For example, you can say: “I’ll play with you when I’m done the dishes.” During a game, you can use a timer or play a song to mark the beginning and end of each turn.
- Help your child mentally prepare for situations that will likely involve waiting. For instance, before going to the park, you can say: “If the swings are all taken, what will you do?” If you prepare them for a wait, they’ll be more likely to stay calm if the situation arises.
- Show your child that everyone has to wait their turn. When you’re at the playground, point out all the children who want a turn. For example, if your child is on the swings and a little girl is waiting, let your child know that it’s almost time to give her a turn.
To help your child understand the importance of turn-taking, ask them what would happen if everyone did the same thing at the same time.
- Use positive reinforcement to encourage your child’s good behaviour. For instance, you can say: “I know how excited you are to play with the fire truck. Thank you for waiting your turn!”
- Explain to your child that waiting is an unavoidable part of life: we wait to pay at the grocery store, to be served at a restaurant, to get on a bus, etc. Remind them that it will eventually be their turn and they’ll be at the front of the line. Remember, you are your child’s role model. Staying calm is the best way to teach by example.
- Practise speaking one at a time during family meals. Go around the table and take turns discussing a topic you’ve picked together (e.g., favourite activity, highlight of the day). To help your child grasp the concept, pass around a special object (e.g., a figurine, a wooden spoon) that designates the speaker.
- Develop a signal to remind your child that they need to listen to others. For example, during an outing, you can place a hand on your child’s arm to signal that they need to let someone else talk.
- If your child interrupts a conversation, ask them to wait, but don’t ignore them. Otherwise, they may look for other ways to get your attention.
Learning the back-and-forth of conversation starts early
As your baby learns language, they’re already becoming familiar with the basics of conversation. Even as an infant, they understand intuitively that there’s an alternation between the speaker and listener. They know that they’re supposed to wait their turn to speak—but they don’t always succeed. To learn more on the topic, check out our fact sheet on turn-taking in conversation
Activities to practise taking turns
- Love attack
Give your child’s favourite stuffed animal a big kiss. Then, ask your child to give them a kiss, too. Keep going until you’re all kissed out!
- Bouncing ball
Sit on the floor facing your child, legs apart. Roll or bounce a ball back and forth.
- Hand stacking
Place your hand palm-down on the table and say, “Your turn!” Have your child place their hand over yours and say, “My turn!” Take turns, alternating your right and left hands. When both hands are stacked, remove your hand from the bottom and place it on top.
- Reading duo
Take turns flipping the pages of a book or describing the illustrations.
- Collective artwork
Take turns doodling on a sheet of paper. Once the drawing is complete, admire your masterpiece!
- Follow the leader
In this copycat game, everyone has to imitate the leader’s actions. After three actions, the next player becomes the leader.
Board games and turn-taking
Playing board games is a fun way to teach your child about taking turns. Here are a few ways to make the activity go smoothly.
A child who can wait their turn generally finds it easier to follow rules.
- Choose games that are age-appropriate and in line with your child’s interests. It’s important for your child to have fun! Otherwise, they won’t be motivated to play or wait their turn.
- At first, limit the game to two players so your child doesn’t have to wait too long between turns. They’ll be less likely to get frustrated or lose interest.
- Be consistent when following the rules you established at the start of the game. Make sure to manage your expectations depending on your child’s age. As they get older, they’ll get better at controlling their emotions, which will make turn-taking easier.
See how this dad helps his daughter wait her turn.
- Have a clear signal to indicate whose turn it is. This can be a sound, a gesture, or an object (e.g., a timer, a toy that’s passed around, an hourglass).
- Put your child’s feelings into words to help them be patient. For instance, you can say: “I know you’re tired of waiting, but it will be your turn soon.” When you acknowledge their efforts, your child feels understood and is more willing to wait.
- Limit the game to 5 or 10 minutes, unless your child wants to continue.
- Praise your child for waiting their turn. You could say: “Wow! You’re waiting so patiently to play. Great job!”
For more tips on how to help your child wait their turn, read our fact sheets on self-control and patience.
Things to keep in mind
Being able to wait their turn helps your child get along with others.
You can use everyday activities to show your child that it’s often necessary to take turns.
Playing board games is a great way to help your child practise turn-taking while having fun.
Scientific review: Marie-Hélène Chalifour, psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: October 2022
Photos: GettyImages/FatCamera and Sam Edwards
Sources and references
Bourque, Solène. Les grandes émotions des tout-petits : comprendre et soutenir les apprentissages émotionnels chez les 2 à 6 ans. Éditions Midi trente, 2020, 144 pp.
Ferland, Francine. Le développement de l’enfant au quotidien : de 0 à 6 ans. 2nd ed., Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2018, 264 pp.
Bedford, David. It’s my turn! Little Tiger Press, 2000, 26 pp.
Carrière, Marie-Josée. Attends ton tour Tambourine!, Septembre éditeur, 2011, 16 pp.
Rousseau, Lina. Chacun son tour. “Galette et Tartine” series, Dominique et compagnie, 2020, 24 pp.