Mothers and children playing with toys

When it comes to developing a child’s social skills, there’s nothing better than some good old-fashioned playtime. From helping develop empathy to learning how to express themselves, play is a major slab in the foundation of a child’s social life. Let’s dive into the particular ways playing can help children develop social skills—starting with defining the basics.

What Is Play?

When defining play, it’s helpful to first examine what play is not. Play is not a forced behavior. If a child is pressured or forced to engage in playful interactions with their toys or another child, this is not play. Play is also not a miserable activity for the child. Instead, play is a voluntary behavior in which children engage in activities that are associated with enjoyment. Play can be amusing, imaginary, productive, interpersonal, or solitary. Whether with toys, parents, other children, or nothing but their imaginations, play allows kids to learn about themselves, their environment, and the world around them.

Defining Social Skills

Play is essential in developing and honing a child’s social skills. These skills are what we use to interact with and communicate with others. Social skills are both verbal and non-verbal. Verbal skills include speech, while non-verbal skills include gesture, expression, and body language. “Reading” another’s body language, tone, and nuance is another key skill that children learn through play. This skill helps them to better understand how to behave in various social situations.

The Importance of Play and Good Social Skills

Giving children the ability to play freely throughout their childhood, from birth through adolescence, is one of the best (and most enjoyable) learning experiences parents and guardians can provide. Play allows children to figure out their world in infancy, learn about societal rules and problem solve as children, and develop self-control, learn how to negotiate, and relax as adolescents.

With a solid set of social skills, children grow up to be able to interact in the world in a much healthier and more productive way. They are able to problem solve, resolve conflict, have empathy, listen well, and care appropriately for others. In essence, healthy play sets a child up for success as an adult.

How Playing Helps Develop Social Skills        

Now that we know about play’s role in the development of social skills, let’s explore the particular ways in which playing can help children develop social skills. These ways include:

Learning Empathy

When interacting with another child (or children), a child must recognize and respond to an assortment of other and possibly opposing wants, feelings, and perspectives. Through play, children can recognize the needs and feelings of others and respond to them appropriately. This involves learning how to put themselves in the other child’s shoes and responding from that place of understanding and compassion.

Learning To Problem Solve

Problem-solving is a critical skill that children must learn to be successful in life. Whether it’s playing with puzzles, enjoying an age-appropriate escape room, or playing an educational video game, this practical form of play will help kids develop the skills they need to navigate challenges. They will also learn negotiation skills to help them advocate for their own wants and needs while also considering the wants and needs of others.

Exploring Feelings

Sometimes, a toy doesn’t work the way a child wants it to, or their friend doesn’t want to play the same game that they do. On a happier note, a child may be bursting with excitement for an upcoming vacation or trip to the toy store. Children can explore their feelings of frustration, excitement, sadness, anger, and wonder through play.

Learning To Communicate

Playing affords children golden opportunities to learn how to communicate. Parents and guardians can step in to help the child learn even better. Some examples of teaching children communication skills through play include:

  • Teaching children the right way to get another’s attention, such as waiting for them to finish speaking before asking a question or saying their name and tapping on them on the shoulder.
  • Teaching children to state their needs directly, such as when they are hungry, tired, or which game they would like to play.
  • Teaching children appropriate ways to join a group of children already at play.

Learning To Cooperate

From sharing to taking turns, cooperation is an important social skill that children must develop. Parents and guardians can also help with this skill. Some ways cooperation can be taught through play include teaching a child to share their toys, take turns on a favorite piece of playground equipment, or hold a piece of paper steady when another child has trouble coloring.

How To Tell if a Child Is Struggling With Play and Social Skills

When a child struggles to play or exhibit the appropriate social skills, the signs may be obvious or subtle. Some of the most common signs of difficulty with play and social skills include:

  • Trouble focusing and paying attention
  • Inability to sit and play with one item at a time
  • Knocking over toys
  • Trouble sharing and taking turns with other children
  • Trouble reading verbal and non-verbal cues
  • Difficulty regulating or expressing emotions
  • Trouble making and maintaining friendships
  • Inability to play on their own

How To Help Children Develop Social Skills Through Play

In addition to the aforementioned ideas, there are other things parents and guardians can do to help their children develop the social skills they need through play. Some of these activities include encouraging playtime with peers. Parents can encourage their children to invite peers from school and the neighborhood to play in a supervised setting at home. Or parents can enroll their children in extracurricular activities such as swimming lessons, library reading events, and chess club. Parents can also order toys online that boost their children’s imaginations.

Another thing parents can do is foster a healthy and loving environment. One way to do this is to model positive behaviors for the child, such as kindness, respect, equity, and compassion. Fostering an environment that is encouraging and loving also helps children feel safe enough to learn through trial and error and not fear mistakes.

Ways playing can help children develop social skills infographic