Supporting Social Play: Helping Children Learn Social Skills from Play
Children’s social skills develop slowly over time.
Children need lots and lots of practice to learn how to get along with others!
The development of social skills also takes sensitive support from adults.
Playing with your child is a great way to help them learn how to share, take turns, and join in a group of children playing! After you have modeled and taught them what to do and say, they can practice the skills with friends, first with your help, then eventually on their own.
Find more play ideas here!
Social play happens when children are playing with adults or with other kids. In early childhood, play gradually gets more social and more complex. By about age four, children begin to engage in sociodramatic play, cooperating to take on roles and creating their own rules.
“Let’s pretend we’re at the grocery store. I’ll be the shopper and you be at the checkout.”
This is an especially valuable type of play. Besides having fun (which has value in itself!), children learn social skills that include: communication, cooperation, problem-solving, and perspective taking. Research shows that social skills help children succeed in school and in life, too.
We can support children’s social skill development by playing with our kids and modeling the positive social behaviors we want them to use. Learning the skills that children practice in social play also takes lots of sensitive adult support. Here’s why:
- Young children often do not know what is expected in different social situations;
- They lack experience and knowledge of appropriate ways to solve conflicts;
- They are naturally egocentric, so it is hard for them to understand others’ intentions and feelings.
We can also teach them social skills using a technique called “scaffolding” – giving just enough help at first, then letting them do more and more on their own.
Here’s how to scaffold children’s development of social skills:
Different methods of communication will benefit different play situations.
- Teach children appropriate ways of getting people’s attention: “When you want Nikko’s attention, say ‘Nikko,’ gently tap his shoulder, then wait for him to look at you.”
- Help children tell each other directly what they want or need: “Tell Sharon, ‘I want to pretend the that the baby is sick and needs to go to the doctor.’”
- Show them how to join a play group – asking to play is not always the best strategy! Socially competent children often watch the children playing then find a way to ease into the ongoing play. “Look! They are building a road with the blocks. Would you like to put some of these signs next to the roads?”
Explain what cooperation looks like in different play situations:
- Sharing: “Hold the book so Tim can see the pages.” “Roll the ball to Rachel, then she can roll it to you.”
- Taking turns: Help kids negotiate who goes first and the time for each turn.
- Compromising: Give children ideas about how each can get a little of what they want.
When children play together, conflicts are inevitable. Help kids learn to solve problems collaboratively by teaching them steps to negotiate:
- State the problem – everyone gets a say.
- Brainstorm on solutions – again, everyone contributes.
- Choose the solution that everyone agrees on.
- Implement the solution – decide on the logistics (length of turns, who goes first, etc.)
- Evaluate the solution – how is it working?
We can help children understand the perspective of others by pointing out:
- How others feel: “Her face is saying ‘I’m sad.’”
- How your child’s behavior affects others: “When you insist on having your way, friends may not want to play with you.”
- How other children might see things differently: “John may not like to be pulled that fast in the wagon.”
With your support and many opportunities for social play, your children will develop the social skills they need to get along with others throughout their lives. And they will have had lots of fun, too!