Making Friends

How Can My Child Learn to Play Well with Others When No One’s Playing at All?

Children learn social skills by interacting with peers. At this time of social distancing, parents have the opportunity — and responsibility — to teach through their own positive example. Here are five fun, easy exercises for families to incorporate into playtime, and why each one works.

If you entered this pandemic already worried about your child’s social skills, then the total lack of peer interaction in a quarantine is surely an additional stressor in an already difficult, uncertain time. Will my child regress socially? Will we have to start all over again with listening and sharing skills? If you are worried, please know that the most important thing you can do is find a healthy family rhythm to get through this time and try to stay well.

As a speech-language pathologist who works mostly with children who struggle socially and with attention issues, I’m hearing a lot right now from parents who worry about the short- and long-term impacts of social isolation on their children. The suggestions below are not intended to create more stress, additional expectation, or worry. They are there for you to consider and incorporate into your life if, when, and how it may make sense to you.

With that in mind, here are five fun and easy ways to create opportunities for social learning at home that will strengthen their interactions with other children when the coast is clear.

Practice Positive, Responsive Play

Children can relax and be themselves around non-judgmental family members, which is why it’s often easier for your child to practice social skills with you. What’s more, children are more likely to initiate social interactions with responsive adults, and play for longer periods of time, which means now is an ideal time to teach important behavior that will translate to the playground later.

Every time you play together — even in five-minute LEGOs sessions — your child is learning from you. You are modeling how to take turns, make positive comments, and generously incorporate others’ ideas into the game you’re playing. These are all important play skills that peers will respond positively to as well.

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The key message: By playing positively with your child, you’re helping him learn to be the sort of friend to whom other kids gravitate.

5 Ways to Teach Your Child How to Play Better

#1. Be a copycat.

Mimicking your child’s words and actions fosters creativity and helps him learn to be patient and go with the flow. Here’s how:

  • Sit facing your child; prepare to follow his lead.
  • Imitate what your child does in play, then wait to see what he does next.
  • Repeat what your child says, add a word or idea, then wait to see what he does next.

Why it works: Copying his behavior then adding to it with words or ideas stretches his imagination and shows him the fun and benefits of being flexible.

[Download This Free Resource: Friendship Guide for Kids]

#2. Play games that require him to track who is going next.

Try building a tall tower with alternating colors — restrict him to use only blue colors; you use red. Or, play a picture game where you’re tasked with finding matching pictures. Take turns building a marble run, zooming cars, or putting ponies in the pretend barn.

Why it works: Any game where your child take turns helps him learn to wait, tune in, and share the moment.

#3. Use books as conversation starters and to help with social learning.

When using books to help with social learning, worry less about actually reading the words and more about looking at the pictures, giving the main idea of the page, and trying to interpret what is happening to the characters. Once you determine what’s going on, discuss how you think the character feels about it and investigate what your child might do and feel in a similar situation.

Why it works: Books can help kids learn about feelings, different perspectives, and problem-solving.

#4. Model compliments.

Kids who use more positive comments in their interactions with peers tend to be invited and accepted into play more often. Try to catch your child doing something well, being kind, or expressing an interesting idea.

Why it works: Kids gravitate to kids who make them feel good. Serving up sincere compliments is one way to accomplish that.

#5. Convert a plain, glass container into a heart jar — a visual reminder of positivity.

Simply cut out blank paper hearts and use them to record the moments you catch your child doing something that is socially positive. Compliments given to siblings or acts of kindness definitely deserve to be recorded on a heart. You might point out that you saw him offer his baby brother a trade when he grabbed his toy without asking. If you witnessed him waiting his turn on the swing set, jot that down. Store the heart jar in a place that he will see it often and review the hearts earned daily — perhaps at dinner time or before the day begins in the morning — until it turns into a happy routine.

Never remove a heart as punishment for bad behavior. Just watch for positive social acts and help your child take notice of them, too. Some days — especially now with daily routines upended — it may be challenging to record positive interactions every day, but I assure you there is always at least one. An observation like, “I really liked how you helped your sister clean up the massive ink drawing you made on the floor,” is fine.

Why it works: Seeing hearts pile up in the jar motivates your child to earn more hearts plus, it makes him feel loved and that of course, feels good.

When your child is grown, he won’t remember the specific details of this unusual time, but he will recall the love he received from the people in his life. Give yourself an extra helping of kindness, too, while you’re at it. And maybe your very own heart jar wouldn’t hurt!

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Updated on August 7, 2020

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