Social Play: Successful Tips for Parents

Social Play: Successful Tips for Parents

social play milestonesParents want their children to be successful and independent in their social interactions, but they also want to protect their child from unwanted confrontations and bullying. It can be challenging.  Let me explain the progression of social play and how a parent can support their child.

Children in the early years are not sure how to regulate themselves and they may need a parent available for emotional support in order for a child to learn empathy, boundaries and proper social interactions. The way you treat your family and friends is what your child will imitate, not what you tell your child to say and do.  Setting a good example is the key.  Here is what to expect at the different ages about your child’s social interactions.  Children vary as to how much play experience, how many siblings and the degree of disability as to their level of play so understand there can be differences.

Birth to 24 Months

Self play (solitary or onlooker play) is the general rule for children in this age range (1).  They like to play near other children but not always with them (parallel play) (4).  Baby will make sounds or talk to himself/herself or to his/her toys as he/she plays.  There is very little give and take in the social interaction with his/her peers.  In the beginning he/she may not even pay attention to other children playing in the same room.  Watching, studying and imitating the play of others will be the norm for this age group.

24 Months to 30 Months

Transitioning to parallel play, he/she now wants to play with the same toys as the children around him/her. This can cause confrontations if there aren’t two toys that are the same.  Emotions are still unpredictable and tantrum behavior may result.  He/she doesn’t try to influence the play of others and he/she may have little interaction with other children playing in the room. Hugging, holding hands, pushing, giving kisses and biting may happen within the same play period.  He/she is developing empathy for others as long as they aren’t interfering with his/her turf.  Experience and personality can influence his/her play interaction with other children.

30 Months to 42 Months

Your child continues parallel play but is beginning to show interest in playing with others in small groups (associative play). He/she is beginning to use dramatization and imagination in his/her play through make-believe and pretend. Symbolic play (e.g. dolls represent mommy/daddy, blocks represent houses, etc.) is beginning to emerge.  Give and take and willing to wait his/her turn is entering the picture, but he/she may be bossy with others. Self-control is on the horizon; however, angry outbursts and tantrum behavior will surface because he/she doesn’t understand his/her emotions and doesn’t have the skill in expressing them appropriately.  He/she is able to follow through with simple rules and routines and putting away toys, but don’t be surprised if your child ends up playing with one of the toys that he/she was supposed to put away. Distraction comes easily.

42 Months to 48 Months

Associative play, interacting with other children in small groups (2), will expand to playing with children in larger groups in structured activities. This can include ball games, follow the leader and other organized social interactions.  Adults may have to clarify the rules.  Remember to allow for unstructured play activities so that a child develops his/her own leadership skills as well as creative and imaginative encounters.  A three-and-a-half-year-old doesn’t show preferences for particular playmates or a particular gender. Interactions include borrowing or sharing of toys, following or chasing one another, physical contact sports and beginning organized play that involves different roles, such as playing house. Although tantrum behavior is not as frequent, your child doesn’t fully understand his/her feelings and how to respond to them. The skill of empathy hasn’t been mastered.

48 Months and Beyond

Your child will begin cooperative play and will prefer to play with a companion of his/her own gender and in groups of two or three children (3). Turn-taking, dramatic play, and games with simple rules makes the social play more engaging. He/she may not be able to differentiate between make-believe and reality or to tell the truth about a sibling or playmate, so he/she can benefit from the situation.  It is important to make this a learning situation.  Movies, TV shows and video games have to be carefully monitored. Developing language to express his/her feelings will decrease frustration and increase empathetic skills.  Emotions seem to be better controlled but feelings can be hurt easily for some children. Your child may respond in a silly way and he/she may purposely do things wrong to get a laugh or a reaction.  As your child becomes older and improves his/her communication skills, solitary and parallel play become less common and associative and cooperative play become the norm in interactions with his/her peers.

It is important for you to understand your child’s developmental milestones to know where your child falls on the play spectrum.  Build on your child’s strengths to develop more successful play or social interactions with his/her peers.

  • It can be as simple as taking turns hitting a switch for a game if your child is nonverbal.
  • If your child isn’t “fitting in” with his peers, find activities such as:
    • walking dogs at a pet shelter,
    • donating time at a soup kitchen,
    • helping younger children in a church preschool,
    • planting a garden, or
    • doing an art or music activity to offer the necessary environment for success.
  • Self-esteem is important for typical and special needs children. Playing with appropriate peers can be a wonderful experience. If you need more help, try setting up “play dates” such as using Play Date Planet or other available sites.

Make it fun and playful.


1) “Play.Encyclopedia of Children’s Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.

2) “associative play.” Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, 8th edition. 2009. Elsevier 25 Mar. 2015

3) “cooperative play.Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, 8th edition. 2009. Elsevier 25 Mar. 2015

4) Cavanaugh, Kail &. Human Development: A Life Span View. 6th ed. N.p.: Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.