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Social Skills PlayAll 3 and 4 year olds are working on developing social skills.  That is what preschool is for, right?  So why would a child need to attend formal social skills groups specifically designed to teach social skills?  This is a great question.  It is true that all kids are learning to share, to take turns and to be polite, but  we have found that even as young as 3, some kids are struggling more than their peers.  They don’t seem to be “learning by doing.”  Often these are the kids who withdraw from interaction or they are the ones who seem to barrel in and take over.

As was discussed in the introductory post to this series, research has found that these kids are not simply “seeking attention” or “behaving badly”, instead they are genuinely struggling with decoding social cues.  That’s where a social skills group comes in.  Keeping in mind the Critical Components of an Effective Social Group that were previously outlined, this article will provide more details about structuring a group for 3 and 4 year-olds and will describe some activities to get you started running such a group.


We use the IMAGINE acronym to reference the 7 social goals areas that we feel are fundamental.  In this article, I will discuss the first two, I for Initiating Interactions and M for Maintaining Interactions.  Subsequent articles will discuss the rest of the acronym with age-appropriate activity ideas.

What Does a Group for 3 and 4 Year Olds Look Like?
Our group sessions typically include a simple game which gets kids moving and highlights a specific age-appropriate skill, a period of cooperative dramatic play and then we typically conclude with a collaborative project.  The carefully chosen activities are what sets a social group apart from a typical “play group” because we use these activities to teach the smallest and simplest components of interaction.  Here are some examples:

Initiating Interactions

Greeting Peers
Many of our kids have trouble greeting peers appropriately.  The game we play to help them is called Walk By, Say Hi and here’s how to play:

• This game is best with at least 2 kids…the more the merrier
• Half of the kids start on one side of the room in a line, and the other half at the other side in a line
• The kids start walking toward one another (one from each side)
• Once they are “arms length” apart, they say “hi”
• Start with a wave or high five for those too timid to speak
• Challenge the group to try new greetings, “hey”, “what’s up?”
• A bit of silliness keeps the anxiety down

Ongoing Play
Many also have trouble joining ongoing play, so we teach them the Joining Game and here’s how to play:

•One adult removes one child, the “joiner”, from play
•The other adult engages at least 2 other children in a quick turn-taking game (e.g., tic-tac-toe)
•The adult with the “joiner” reviews the catch phrase, “STOP your body, WATCH the game to see if a turn is going, if it is… WAIT for the turn to end, and then JOIN”. Use gestures for support.
•Remember to coach the “joiner” through each step
•Switch up the roles among the kids.
• Make sure that once in awhile the turn is over, so the kids realize they don’t always have to wait.
•Once the kids get the timing down, they can graduate to more open-ended play.

As kids become more competent with Initiating Interactions, it is also important to help them with…

Maintaining Interactions

Responding to Peers
Lots of kids have trouble with responding to peers, so we engage them in the Let Them Know role play.  Here’s how to play:

•Adults role play a situation in which actor #1 tries to show or tell actor #2 something. Actor #2 just starts talking about something completely irrelevant. Actor #1 repeats what he originally said (to no avail) and then walks away frustrated.
•Explain the importance of letting people know that you heard them with an appropriate verbal response (“oh”, asking a relevant question, making a relevant comment, etc).
•Role play the initial situation but do it the “right” way with Actor #2 responding appropriately and Actor #1 is thrilled.
•Have children act out similar scenarios to practice.

Talking Over Others
Many also have trouble not talking over others, so we introduce Watch Out for Bumping Words and here’s how to play:

•Gather children together across a table from an adult leader.
•Place a variety of small building supplies like blocks, legos, or k’nex in front of the leader.
•The leader then asks the kids to tell her what to do with the blocks without asking them to talk one at a time.
•Most likely several kids will talk at once and the leader can dramatically demonstrate her difficulty if one child says to “put blue on red” while another child says to “put blue on green”  (if need be, another adult can cause the bumping words).
•Introduce the notion of “bumping words” and pair with a visual of bumping fists to reinforce the importance of speaking one at a time.

Groups Staying Together
Another key concept that we work on throughout all activities is the notion of “groups staying together.”  One of the most effective ways we have found to do this is to read a simple story book and have the kids work together to act it out.  As mentioned above, we typically end by engaging kids in collaborative projects with the goal of helping them share materials and space, respect others work and be flexible.   These activities also provide many opportunities to reinforce the skills discussed above.

Please be sure to stay tuned for our next article which will discuss the goal areas, Advocating and Negotiating and Getting and Staying Regulated with specific activity ideas for 5 and 6 year-olds.