For the first few years of life, adult family members make up the majority of a child’s world. From them, infants and toddlers learn to trust, build bonds, and practice playing as they explore and learn. From the ages of 3 to 5, however, children start to move past the parallel (solitary) play stage and into a fantasy play phase that involves interacting with peers, according to a recent article on WebMD.
In decades of the past, it was easier for children to find and make friends in their own neighborhoods. In that safer time, young children often spent many hours in unstructured, and largely unsupervised, outdoor play. In today’s world, children spend more time indoors with their families participating in structured activities like sports or music lessons. In order to make sure your preschool-age child is ready for the type of social interaction necessary for kindergarten and beyond, you might need to seek out opportunities for socialization. Here are some tips that can help you find and engage in socialization with your toddler or preschooler.
#1. Practicing Basic Social Skills With Family Members
It’s important for young children to practice the basics of socialization at home every day with parents, caregivers, and siblings who can offer support and encouragement in a relaxed setting. You can practice being polite by using good “please and thank-you” manners, learning to take turns speaking and understanding the importance of sharing. Much of these behaviors can be learned through play and by involving your child in everyday activities with you. These three elements are the building blocks of more complex social interactions that your child will encounter at school.
- Being Polite: Using polite language like “please”, “thank-you” and ‘“excuse me”, and learning to speak kindly will help your child be likable and more easily make friends.
- Back-And-Forth Conversation: In the past, people used to say children should be seen and not heard. We now know that’s not at all true. Teaching your child how to be part of a conversation early on helps them build confidence and learn how to work collaboratively with others.
- Normalize Sharing: Babies and young toddlers who aren’t used to socializing with peers are possessive of toys, food, and even people. As they develop and start playing with friends, they tend to naturally start moving towards sharing with others. However, they will still need help and practice with the art of sharing.
#2. The Importance Of Playdates
Playdates are a great way for children to learn to interact and play together in a familiar setting. These events are especially important if your child doesn’t have siblings or hasn’t had the opportunity for frequent play with children outside of the family. A little bit of planning can help a playdate run smoothly and be a great experience. Here are a few playdate tips:
- Let your child suggest a friend to invite for the playdate. If you aren’t the one planning and your child was invited to a playdate, encourage but never force your child to accept.
- Set a start and end time. An hour long session is more than enough time for young children to spend together and will help prevent fatigue and crankiness.
- If you want to provide a snack, check with the other parent(s) for food allergies and preferences.
- Put away any favorite toys that might cause a problem with possessiveness or prevent sharing.
- Provide a few choices of creative, open-ended activities. Let the children lead the playdate.
- If issues or arguments arise, let them attempt to work it out with minimal parental guidance. Encourage them to use words and share feelings.
- Emphasize working together to clean up when the activity is over.
- Get ready for goodbye by giving a 5 or 10-minute warning before the playdate is going to end. Practice your own polite goodbye language and follow-up by having a conversation about how the playdate went.
#3. Finding Socialization Opportunities In The Neighborhood
You can find plenty of great small social opportunities right in your own subdivision. Socialization doesn’t always have to be a planned or structured activity and it doesn’t have to be very long. Brief or micro-socialization opportunities are just as important. A simple stroll around the block can give you the ability to wave and say “hello” to your neighbors. You can model good social skills by stopping to chat and helping your child engage in the conversation.
If your neighborhood has a playground, this is another great place to meet and make new friends. A playground is great because it encourages unstructured play where the children are free to interact without much parental involvement, so they will spend more time talking to each other and learning how to work in a small group.
#4. Socialization Through Childcare Or Family-Friendly Community Activities
Many children have the opportunity to play with other children within daily childcare situations. Children of working parents might have in-home childcare or be part of a daycare facility. This is a great opportunity for them to play with peers, make friends, and learn valuable socialization tools.
You can also seek out family-friendly community events or activities to join. An article by Psychology Today points out the importance of local public libraries as a source of free community events and resources for children. From storytimes to art lessons, and special interest clubs, libraries are a great place for families. It’s also a fine way for parents to meet each other and set up future playdates between preschool-aged children who have an instant connection. You can also find activities for children organized by local museums, zoos, schools, and even retail stores.
If you provide plenty of practice opportunities for social skills, your child will have a head start when it’s time to go to school. Listening to others, following directions, and taking turns are all necessary everyday skills for learning. Happily, these are all skills you can learn through play while having fun.
Sandra Chiu works as Director at LadyBug & Friends Daycare