Playing to Build Social Skills in Young Children

Even for toddlers and preschool children, friendships are key. Research suggests that early social development and peer relationships are critical for later academic success, social adjustment, and the ability to handle challenges and adversity. Friendships in early childhood also provide opportunities for children to develop the skills that they will need for social interactions in the future, when relationships become more complex and increasingly difficult to navigate.

However, many young children struggle with the emotional and/or communication skills that are crucial for forging successful friendships during these foundational years.  While some children are hesitant or unsure of how to join in play, others struggle to respond flexibly without being disruptive to others.

Providing a young child with opportunities to interact with peers is widely understood to be an important step in cultivating social competency. However, research also shows that parents can promote social skills at home in one of the most enjoyable ways: playing! By engaging in peer-like play with their young children just for fun, parents can model advanced social skills, such as being flexible and generating different options and ideas for play. This is especially helpful for a child who may struggle to experience positive interactions in a peer setting.

Children benefit most when parents “follow their lead” during play, rather than trying to dominate the play or correct the child. It is also important to avoid criticism and to be actively involved. By accepting, following, and then building on the child’s ideas in an active, positive way, parents encourage children to build on others’ play ideas in this manner as well. In the context of playing with a parent as equals, children learn to be responsive to others and to feel that they have something of value to offer when interacting with peers, making them more likely to seek out other children. As an additional benefit, repeated sensitive, responsive parent reactions during play helps children learn to regulate their emotions more successfully during times of stress, which in turn allows them to interact more successfully with others.

It has long been understood that when parents respond to their children in a positive, attuned manner, children learn to respond to others in this manner as well. Parents can take this a step further through positive, peer-like play, helping their young child develop important social skills while also enjoying time together.

Kati Ann Leonberger, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist