Helping Your Child Join Group Play


Social entry is how children get into ongoing play. Imagine you and your child walk into a busy preschool classroom. There are four children already playing in the housekeeping center and your child wants to join them. Social entry refers to how your child enters. It is also how you get into a conversation at a busy cocktail party.
There are a few ineffective ways to enter in. The first is the child who stands back and watches, waiting to be invited in. Unless those playing kids really, really need someone to be the dog likely your child will end up just standing alone. The other ineffective way to enter is the child who tries to take charge or change the on-going play as they enter.
It also tends to backfire if we send children in saying, “Go ask them ‘Can I play?’” The power for the other children here is in saying “no” you want the power to be in saying “yes” which leads to our first tip.
Effective ways to enter ongoing play include:
  • Coach children to ask more specific questions as they enter play. Focus on questions that give the already playing children power in saying “yes.” Such questions include “How can I play?” or “What can I be?” Here the power for the already playing child is in assigning roles so they are more likely to say “yes.”
  • Teach children to observe play first. Children will be more effective if they can join the action that is already taking place and to do this a child must know what is happening. A moment of observation can be helpful.
  • Teach children to offer to help. If the playing children are building a tower, your child might say, “What can I build?” or “Do you need this block?” or more openly, “How can I help?”
  • Coach children to compliment the children they want to join. I know this sounds a bit manipulative but it often works. If there is a group of children painting at the art table and your child walks over and says to one, “Wow, that’s a pretty tree you painted! May I paint too?” the other is more likely to make space.
  • Teach children to join ongoing play rather than change the play as they enter. Children who try to change the play as they enter usually fail. They will be more successful if they join even for five minutes before suggesting the new activity.
  • Proximity can work. For children who feel too shy to speak up, it may be that they just need to physically join in the play. If there are ten children playing tag and running around, your child might just join in the running and be child eleven playing tag.
  • For younger children, you might join the play with them. While children are in preschool and early elementary school, it may be helpful for a parent to join the play with them for the first few minutes.


Author: Dr. Rene Hackney

With a MA in school psychology and a PhD in developmental psychology, I founded and work as a parent educator at Parenting Playgroups. Somewhere in there I trained in the Developmental Clinic at Children's NMC and in the public schools. I have two beautiful, funny children who make me practice what I preach most everyday.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: