Your Child’s Social Skills and Play

Playing with blocks

A child’s social competence is most simply defined as their ability to play while keeping friends. If the other kids are happy when your child shows up, they want to continue playing with them and the play tends to go well most of the time then their social skills are likely developing at least fairly well. If other kids shun them, stop playing often and the play breaks down repeatedly then their social skills may be an issue. The idea is to watch the child in play, and look for patterns that cause the difficulties. Ask his teachers and other caregivers for their input about his play.

Across the preschool years notable social skills include turn taking and later, sharing, listening to others, carrying small then more complex conversations, shifting from parallel to interactive to group play, later building play scenarios and entering into on-going play. In elementary school, personal space issues, negotiation skills, conflict resolution skills, managing competition, perspective taking and empathy for others all become increasingly important.

Children who struggle with these skills may benefit from more playtime, guided practice and additional coaching activities. Good parenting books include:

  • Raise Your Child’s Social IQ by Cohen
  • Teaching Your Child the Language of Social Success by Duke
  • The Unwritten Rules of Friendship by Elman
If you have questions about social skills, please join me on facebook for a parenting chat every Tuesday night from 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. EST.

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.


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