The Nearly Comprehensive Guide to Teaching Your Child How to Play

play skills, children, social skills

Wondering how to help your child develop their play skills?

Keep reading, you're in the right place.

Your child's play development happens in specific, sequential stages and there are things that you can do in each stage to help them develop more advanced play skills. Keep in mind that there's more to play than just play, your child is also developing language and social-emotional skills (like Theory of Mind) that are critical parts of play development. So today's tips and strategies will cover not only play, but also language and social skills that you need to know about.

Well, let's jump right in with the first stage of play! (Spoiler: It doesn't really look like play but it's all a part of the your child's play development.)

Spectator Play: 2 - 2.5 yrs

This is the stage when your cute munchkin is starting to really notice other children. It's called spectator play because your child is literally just watching other children play. Just like a fan in the stand at a football game. When a child is only watching their peers play, it always makes my heart hurt a bit because they appear isolated. While I do feel a bit sad, I myself have to recognize that it's a stage. If your child is older than three, I would be more concerned that they're only watching their peers play, but keep in mind that this is part of the natural progression of your 2-year-old's play development.

Narration for Spectator Play

Before your child can just jump in and play, they have to learn how to play. Watching and observing is how we, as adults, initially learn new skills. Like when we're watching a professor write an equation on the whiteboard or discreetly listening to a conversation to try to learn someone's name. Remember the sports analogy about your child as a spectator in the stands? Well every sport has a sports caster and in this scenario that is you. Your job is to talk about what's happening in your child's world and point out important 'plays' (pun intended) 😉 of the kiddos in your child's environment. So if you're at the park and your child is watching some children play tag, you would narrate what's going on by saying something like "Those kids are playing tag. The boy running is 'it' and he's trying to catch the other kids. That looks like fun!" When you provide that sports cast, you're drawing your child's attention to their peers, explaining what they're playing and how the game works.

Vocabulary to Teach While Narrating

The other big thing to do when you're a sports caster is to teach your child the words they need to develop their social skills. In early social skills development, there are three types of vocabulary that your child needs. These vocabulary categories are: perception, emotion and cognition. Perception and emotion are the types of social vocabulary that your child first learns how to use and during the your child's stage of Spectator Play, it's a golden opportunity to really emphasize the words for your child needs to understand and describe perception and emotion. The vocabulary for perception and emotion are words that you use all the time. Perception words child, playare what you would use to describe how you interact with your world like "I see," "I hear," "I feel," "I smell," and "I taste." The words for emotions are "Happy, sad, excited, frustrated, disappointed," etc. So as you're being your child's sports caster, talk not only about what other children are doing but also their emotions and how they are interacting with their environment. You could say something like, "See that boy? I think he looks sad. Maybe he's sad because he dropped his ice cream cone." 

The Spectator Stage typically lasts from when your child is 24-30 months old.

Parallel Play: 2.5 - 3 yrs

We're now to the stage where your child is ready to play within the vicinity of other children. During parallel play, your child is playing near peers and with similar toys, but it not yet interacting with them.

Encourage your child to play near their friends whether this is on the playground or just on the same side of the room as cousins and siblings. If your child comes over to play near you, encourage them to go play by their friends if there are any children around. I love playing with my preschoolers, but it's better the them to learn to play with each other. If there aren't any peers around, then I gladly and enthusiastically play with them. But if there are any little friends around, I quietly remove myself out of the play area.

Associative Play: 3 - 4 yrs

You've finally made it to the point where your child is interacting with their peers! During associative play, your child is playing near peers and briefly interacts with them but is not maintaining the play interaction or creating an organized play scenario. But.... your child is playing with peers, this is a huge step! To initiate and briefly engage in play with peers, your child needs to know how to enter play and simple turn-taking behaviors. (Teaching children how to enter play is my favorite topic!)

How to Enter Play

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. Children comment on the ongoing play and then just straight up join in the play activity. If our goal is for children to play and have the same skills as all the other children, then we need to teach them to interact like the other children do. We do not want to unintentionally set a child up for failure when it comes to playing with their peers. When you ask a Yes/No question like "Can I?" then you are setting yourself up for a response that you are not in control of..... like "No." If your child asks, "Can I play?" then the peer could reasonably respond "No" which would be devastating. 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 creates an awkward situation. 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. So next time instead of telling your child to ask, "Can I play with you?" instead use the 3-Stage Model of Social Competence. The 3-Stage Model of Social Competence describes the three stages that your child uses to enter play. These steps are 1) Surveillance 2) Entry and 3) Maintenance.

3-Stage Model of Social Competence

  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.
When I'm teaching a student the "Surveillance, Entry, Maintenance Strategy," I use the language and words that make sense to a child. I prompt by saying, "Look around, where do you see your friends." I'll then ask the child to identify what their friends are playing with and doing. Next, I'll prompt the child to think of something they can say like "I like dinosaurs, too!" or "That's an awesome race track!"

Wanna Trade?

Another skill that's important for kiddos is knowing how to share and trade toys. Sharing is a pretty tough concept whether you are three or a freshman in college (I still have mixed feelings about 'sharing' clothes and food).

(Here's a quick read on how to teach your child to share.)

A stepping stone to teaching sharing is trading. Trading is a pretty concrete thing. I get something and you get something, it's an arrangement that we both can agree on.

Whether you're teaching your child how to share or ask where the bathroom is, keep in mind to teach your child the language and phrases that children their age are saying. So instead of teaching a 4-year-old to say "Would you mind trading?" or "Would you be open to the idea of considering whether to trade toys?" teach phrases like "Wanna trade?"

Cooperative Play: 4 - 6+ years

Cooperative play is when you really start to see kids playing together. In cooperative play there's sharing, trading, negotiating, and some kind of organized game. You'll often see children's organized games when they play pretend. Play pretend is actually a pretty advanced play skill because there's a distinct play scenario with assigned roles and rules.

Playing Pretend

To play pretend, children first create a play scenario by deciding what to play and then by identifying and assigning character roles. You'll notice your child doing this when they say things like "Let's play house. I'll be the mommy and you be the daddy" or "Let's say that you're the Big Bad Wolf and I'm a Little Pig." Encourage your child to engage in cooperative play by encouraging them to play with peers and periodically giving suggestions of play scenarios. Some tried-and-tested play scenarios are going to the doctor, house, school, and taking a pet to the vet.

Talk about Cause & Effect and Emotions

While you're encouraging your child to play with peers and providing opportunities for your child to practice interacting, there are other simple things you can do within your daily routine to help your child develop crucial social skills. I could go on forever about social skills (for real, it's my favorite research obsession) but we'll boil it down to just one crucial foundational skills for today: Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind is essentially 'social cognition.' You could also say that it's pretty much being in tune with others' emotions and perspectives and knowing how this influences behavior. If you have Theory of Mind, then you know that not everyone thinks like you do and knows all of the information that you know.

(What to know why Theory of Mind is a big factor in peer acceptance and experiencing positive social interactions?)

To help your child develop Theory of Mind, here's a really simple strategy you can use when watching Pixar Shorts. When you watch them, label emotions, talk about interactions between individuals, and identify and explain the causes of emotions and behaviors. While you’re watching the films, periodically pause them and talk about what’s happening. Ask your child questions about what they’re seeing and why they think certain things are happening.

Putting It All Together

Congratulations! You have made it to the end of the post and probably feel a bit overloaded with all of this information about social and play skills. Just remember that you don't have to become an expert on this overnight, start applying your new knowledge by picking one thing that you can do today to help your child develop their play skills.

You've got this 🙂

(P.S. This post may contain affiliate links 'cause momma needs to bring home the bacon. Thank you for any negligible kick-back I receive. I keep track of my pennies!) Citations Brown, P., Remine, M., Prescott, S. & Rickards, F. (2000). Social interactions of preschoolers with and without impaired hearing in integrated kindergarten. Journal of Early Intervention, 23: 3, 200-211. Fung, W. & Cheng, R.W. Early Childhood Educ J (2017) 45: 35. doi:10.1007/s10643-015-0760-z Parten, M.B. (1933) Social play among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 28, 136-147.

4 thoughts on “The Nearly Comprehensive Guide to Teaching Your Child How to Play

  1. Thanks you for a wonderful article. A lot of what you talk about here is particularly relevant for teen with Autism. We are promoting the implementation and recognition of evidence based social skills programs for teenagers with Autism in Australia. There are extremely similar struggles for teenagers with ASD like the ones you have mentioned above and as they grow older they become more socially aware of their deficits.

    Simliar to your 3-step model of social competence, the key for teens with autism is to be given a structured set of steps to use in social situations. This is then role-played over and over in an attempt to help them generalise these skills into real life situations. Similarly to what steps you are taking here to assist Neurotypical children when they are first learning how to interact and develop friendships.

    1. Thank you for sharing your insights and perspectives. I think that we can forget that social skills can be a challenge for many children and I’m glad that you’ve shared how this is helpful to you 🙂

  2. Language for the playground is so helpful and valuable.
    It’s really helping me learn and understand , how I can best support my Deaf toddler.
    Thankyou so much for your amazing work.

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