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Teaching Social Skills

The family is a young child’s first circle of friends. You are the role model for how to work and play with others. You start playing with your child as an infant with “peek-a-boo” and “pat-a-cake.” As children grow older, games grow more sophisticated, but it is still the time you take to be with your family that is most important.

Play Together

There is no better way to help children learn social skills than to play.

  • Get down on the floor and play together.

    • Use blocks or other building toys to help children learn to cooperate with others. Take turns deciding on what to build or how to put pieces together. Build two different structures, but share the building material.

    • Race across the floor with play cars. Sometimes your child’s car will win; sometimes your child’s car will lose. This is an easy way to model gracious winning and losing.

    • Play board games or card games. Games force young children to take turns because that is part of the rules. They also set up an excellent way to practice winning and losing. It’s important not to “let” your child always be the winner—that is not what will happen when they play with their friends.

  • “Make believe” helps children learn social skills and to communicate with others.

    • Use clay to help make cups, plates, and foods. Then, join in a tea party, with your child serving and sharing make-believe food and drink and you acting as the friend.

    • Turn a menagerie of stuffed animals into a trip to the zoo or a walk through the jungle, going from place to place and sharing stories about each animal.

    • Change roles. Let your child be the parent and you be the child. Set up different scenarios and let your child take the lead. Then, let your child decide on the roles each of you should play.

  • We often use “art time” as a time for children to play by themselves as we go about fixing dinner or completing other chores. But, art can be an excellent tool for cooperative play.

    • Talk about sharing as you pick a color to draw with and your child picks another color from the box of crayons.

    • Talk about taking turns as your child uses the brown crayon to draw the dog and then you use the brown crayon to draw a tree.

    • Talk about cooperating as you both decide on a picture to draw and then work together to complete it. Make decisions about the colors to use and who draws or colors each part of the picture.

Work Together

Often, we find ourselves with little time to get down on the floor and play with our children. But, when we have work to do at home, we can use these times to help children learn to cooperate, collaborate, and share.

  • Make a special effort to let children help in the kitchen. If you’re making sandwiches for lunch, collaborate to decide what to put in the sandwich and which item goes first, second, etc. Be sure you make some of the decisions to help your child learn that friends treat each other fairly.

  • Clean-up time can be much easier when everyone cooperates. Making the bed is a good two-friend job and goes more smoothly if you work together. Show children how the job gets more difficult if you pull against each other. Help children learn to take turns as you put toys away. It’s a positive way to have children demonstrate first you, then me.

  • Set up a weekly task list that has family members taking turns doing jobs around the house. Different family members do different tasks on different days of the week: feed the dog or set the table or empty the trashcan. Some tasks may be more difficult or less desirable than others, so taking turns makes the chores fairer.

Now, Add Friends

Family members may be your child’s first friends and playmates, but it is important to broaden their circle of friends and support your children as they make and learn to keep friends.

  • If your child is not in pre-school, set “play dates” with neighborhood children or with children of your own friends.

  • If your child is having trouble sharing his/her own toys with friends, it may be easier to learn to share or take turns at the park or a playground. On neutral ground, children can’t say “it’s mine.”

  • Sometimes, young children don’t start playing together easily. Play a group game to break the ice and get children to join in—Follow the Leader, Simon Says, May I? Older children can take turns leading each of the games.
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Updated on 3/21/2012