Joining & Engaging in Play

Getting together for playdates and setting up playgrounds is a hot topic in my Facebook mom groups. I'm all about giving kiddos an opportunity to get together, make new friends, and learn how to play together. Playdates are something I plan on doing with Baby Boy when he's a bit older!

It's awesome that so many mommas are trying to help their kiddos make friends and learn how to play together!

So why are we trying to set up playdates for our kiddos? (Besides a way for us to make mommy friends?) You know that your child needs socialization and interaction. And that play is a skill that takes work! Play may seem "easy" but there's a lot of language and social skills that go into just playing house or coordinating a game of tag.

(Some of the skills your child practices during play are organizing, negotiating, compromising, sharing, trading, etc. Books like "How Do Dinosaurs Play with Their Friends?" can help teach 'play etiquette.')

Let's just start with one skill in this post....the very first part of the 'play interaction.'

How do children make the step from observing others playing to actually playing with them? In other words, how do they join in and engage in the play interaction?

How to Not Join in the Fun

Part of teaching is providing non-examples or the 'what-not-to-dos.' I'm honestly all 'bout the positivity, but we gotta establish the 'what-not-to-do' since it's the popular go-to.

As adults, we may prompt children to join ongoing play by asking, “Can I play with you?” but this is not how children naturally join their peers.

Prompting a child to say “Can I play with you?” is like an adult approaching a group and saying “Can I talk with you guys? What are we talking about?” Saying this makes feels very unnatural and awkward. It's like, "Okay, I get what you're trying to do but why'd you have to go and make this weird?" You know the phrase, "It's only awkward if you make it awkward?" Yeah, this just made it awkward.

Let's not make it awkward by saying "Can I play with you?"

There's another issue with "Can I play with you?" and I think this is really the bigger problem.

When you ask a question with "Can I?" the response has to be "yes" or "no." The response is something you can't control, especially with 4-year-olds. If the response you want is "yes" then asking a "Can I?" question is setting you up for failure.

Prime Example:

Mom, "Can you put away your dishes?"

Teenager, "Nope."

So if your child asks, "Can I play?" to a peer then there's the potential that the peer could respond "No, I don't wanna play with you." Uh, that would be devastating to a 4-year-old.... really any-year-old. We all want to feel included and liked.

How to Join in a Play Interaction

Children develop life-long skills during play, so it makes sense that the same behaviors we expect in interactions as adults we practice as children during play.

When you join in a conversation by the water cooler, what do you do? Nothing.

Jk, you are actually doing a lot more than nothing. The tactic actions you are subtly undertaking can be summed up in the 3-Stage Model of Social Competence.

3-Stage Model of Social Competence

 3-Stage Model of Social Competence describes the steps to subtly join in conversation and play. These steps are:

  1. Surveillance
  2. Entry
  3. Maintenance

These steps sounds a bit technical, but after you check out the examples it makes a lot more sense.

  1. Surveillance
    1. A child observes the play behaviors of peers.
    2. Allie stands near her peers and listens to their conversation. They are talking about dinosaurs. Allie loves dinosaurs and continues to listen.
  2. Entry
    1. A child determines how he/she is going to enter the ongoing play.
    2. After listening briefly to her peer’s conversation, Allie thinks up a comment on her peers’ ongoing play. A comment she could use is, “Hey! That’s my favorite dinosaur, too!”
  3. Maintenance
    1. The child keeps playing with the group.
    2. After entering the ongoing play, Allie keeps playing by continuing to make comments and showing interest in what her peers are doing and saying.

Applying the 3-Step Model

Coaching your child with the "Surveillance, Entry, Maintenance" model can be pretty straightforward. You'll intuitively know what phrases and words to use that make sense to your child. Some phrases I prompt with are:

  • "Look around, find your friends."
  • "What are they doing?"
  • "What is Jenny playing with?"
  • "Hmm, what can you say about dinosaurs?"
  • "Hey, you could say, 'I like dinosaurs too!"
  • "Maybe you can say, 'that's an awesome race track!'"

The big thing with "Surveillance, Entry, Maintenance" is that your child is observing her peers and talking about the play that the peer is already engaged in. Developmentally kiddos are egocentric and this is a great opportunity for them to practice tuning into others and adapting instead of trying to unintentionally control and dominate an interaction.

Wrapping It Up

Three things to remember are

  1. Encourage your child to comment on what her friends are doing.
  2. Don't prompt your child to use the phrase, "Can I play with you?"
  3. Praise your child for trying. It's hard to put yourself out there!

Thanks for your reading! If you would like more tips and strategies to develop your child's language, listening, and play skills... subscribe! 🙂

(P.S. This post contains affiliate links cause momma's gotta bring home the bacon. At no cost to you, I may receive a negligible kick-back from your purchase. Thank you!)

One thought on “Joining & Engaging in Play

  1. Love the “How Do Dinosaurs…” series! The illustrations are gorgeous. They’re all gold, but I really love the how to play with friends one, as that’s tricky for 3 year olds.

    Who knew social skills took so much practice? Whew. We’re putting in the hours over here but the sharing is still so hard.

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