We visited a soft play this weekend… my kids love it but I’m not so keen on crawling around after my littlest! However much some of us grown-ups are not keen on soft play, it’s hard to deny how great they are for some much needed energy-burning and physical development for our young children!
This particular soft play that we visited had an extra section for the under 3’s (not that my 2 year old stayed in there for long – she’s much happier chasing her brothers around the big sections and going down the biggest slides… no fear); but she did go in there for a bit and while she was there she made a friend…sort of…! She got on a little see-saw and looked around, then another girl of similar age got on with her. They smiled at each other as they see-sawed back and forth in mutual enjoyment and then that was it; off they went in their separate directions.
It got me thinking about the stages in social development of young children and how we can help them with it. My daughter is at a stage where she has just moved on from playing alongside other children and is now starting to engage with them by smiling and making eye contact.
What are the learning opportunities?
Young children will be learning to develop friendships with other children, and 3-4 years olds will be learning to play with one or more other children, extending and elaborating play ideas.Development Matters, 2021
5 ideas to help young children to make friends and play with others
Being out and about in a range of different social settings will help young children to understand how to mix with others; the park, soft play, playgroups, or a cafe meet up with friends, all provide different ways of interacting with others and they will learn through the experiences.
If you see an opportunity for them to make friends, then carefully encourage it. For example, if they are playing in the sand tray at playgroup and another child is there, notice and comment on what they are doing… ‘look he’s filling a bucket with sand, can you do the same? Maybe he can pour it into your bucket when it is full’… providing them with a way of engaging in the same play rather than playing alongside each other, without interaction.
This is an important one, especially after all the lock downs we have recently endured. Our youngest are not as used to having others in their homes and it can be a lot for them to deal with. Try keep it to a maximum of two friends round at once and put special toys away. It can be a good idea to put out a few activities ready; such as some building blocks, train tracks or play dough, so that they can get busy straight away. A break for snack time can provide relief for young children if they are finding sharing and playing with others in their own home a bit overwhelming. Also, try playing partner games such as a simple jigsaw or singing ‘row, row, row your boat’; which is a great way to help children grow in confidence around others.
Picnic Play Date
Meeting friends for a picnic on a dry day (or inviting them round for an indoor picnic on a wet day) can provide a great opportunity to practise interacting. When sharing food they can watch and observe as the adults are talking to each other; from this they can learn about turn taking in conversation, body language and eye contact. Adults can then encourage the children to talk to each other in a similar way.
A Friendship Walk
If your little one is able to be out of the pushchair when out on a walk, maybe meet up with a friend and their child to go on a walk together. Encourage the children to walk alongside each other, and give them something to look for so that they have the same purpose and can interact through it; for example a bug hunt or looking for things of the same colour.
Young children need to experience a wide range of social situations to help their social skills to develop; before you know it they will have a better social life than yours!