Billy is a friendly, creative 4 year old boy. At home, he plays with his older sister nicely, sharing and taking turns, but at daycare it’s a different story. He has trouble cooperating with his peers – on one occasion he even hit another child because they began to play with his favorite toy. Billy’s parents are worried about how his social skills are progressing and how Billy will cope with the transition to prep.
Sarah is a sweet and shy 5 year old girl. She loves going to the park, but her mum has started to notice that Sarah doesn’t seem to create her own ideas like other children her age. She is happy to follow along with other kids’ ideas to play house or play pirates, but she seems a bit lost with how to pretend in these types of roles. She often just copies what the other children do, rather than showing unique ideas.
Alex is a funny, cheerful 5 year old boy. He loves playing with trucks, airplanes, and trains. He is a good listener and always packs his toys away when his mummy asks. However at kindy he’s having trouble coping with the other kids’ ways of playing. One child in his kindy class likes to drive the cars on the train tracks and make the planes carry each other, which makes Alex frustrated. Alex tends to tell other children how to play his way, and he likes to be in charge of the play. Some kids happily go along, but Alex’s parents are worried that in prep the other children won’t tolerate Alex’s correcting and may find someone else to play with instead.
The vignettes used in this story are based on frequent profiles we see here at Grow On OT but do not reflect the actual names or specific details of any clients.
These are common stories that we hear from parents as they begin to think about their child’s social skills and getting their child ready for school. So what are typical behaviours for children at this age, and how can parents promote appropriate, school-ready social skills?
Around the age of 3, children begin to understand more about feelings, and they can detect others’ emotions from their facial expression and vocal tone. Play with other children begins to shift from parallel play – in which children play the same activity alongside other children – to associative play. This is play where children may interact in order to obtain wanted materials from each other, and occasionally it results in conflicts over whose turn it is.
Around the age of 4, children’s abilities shift to more cooperative and collaborative play. Children are learning to negotiate successfully for turn-taking and sharing, though may seek and need guidance from adults. Play is now much more interactive.
By the age of 5, children generally cooperate well in their play and do not rely on adults as much to manage turn-taking or to solve conflicts. By this age, children’s play is highly interactive, and they rely on one another to have fun.
Parents can support their children in developing these skills through structured games. With parental support, children learn how to take turns being the leader, as well as how to cope with waiting for their turn to lead. As children learn to adjust to roles in games, they begin to cope with turn-taking more independently and even begin to negotiate more independently.
Ideas for structured games and activities that help to develop turn-taking and cooperative skills include the following:
- Hide and Seek
- Red Light, Green Light
- What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf?
- Mother May I?
- Follow the Leader
- Stuck in the Mud
Difficulty in social play is a natural growing pain of development. All children will have some difficulty as they transition from parallel play to more interactive play. But how do you know whether your child’s difficulty in play is just a growing pain, or something more?
Here at Grow On Children’s OT, we often hear from parents who are concerned that their children aren’t playing as cooperatively as other children seem to and we spend time together talking about the building blocks for cooperative, interactive play. These building blocks include:
- the ability to remain regulated, to control impulses and maintain attention
- the ability to engage emotionally with others
- the ability to understand theory of mind, which means understanding that other people have thoughts and feelings different from one’s own.
Michelle Garcia Winner, Founder of the Social Thinking® Curriculum, provides a framework for how to work with children who have shown difficulties with the building blocks for social skills. The Social Thinking Curriculum provides opportunities to concretely teach children concepts such as:
- Thoughts and Feelings— understanding the role of the heart and the brain, and recognizing that all people have both thoughts and feelings
- The Group Plan— understanding the idea of a class agenda or a play agenda, in order to understand what behaviors are expected
- Thinking With Our Eyes— learning how to use our eyes to gather information about what other people are thinking about or feeling, and using our eyes to show others we are listening to them
When children do not have the building blocks for cooperative play, occupational therapists use individual or group based therapy sessions to teach these skills (and many others). Occupational therapists work with young children to assess their social emotional skills, to understand their current strengths and challenges and to build these skills.
Here at Grow On Children’s Occupational Therapy, we run a Junior Social Skills Group to enhance essential social skills. If you are concerned about your child’s social emotional skills in the transition to school, consider booking a start-up session with one of our occupational therapists. We can organised an assessment and determine whether individual therapy or one of our group programs may be able to support your child in getting ready for a fun and happy school experience!
Social emotional skills are a very broad topic. Some other articles you may find interesting include our article 7 Milestones for Social Skills Development as well as the article Why Is Play Important.
Hendrix, R., Palmer, K., Tarshis, N., & Winner, M. (2013). The Incredible Flexible You. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.
As mentioned above if you are concerned about your child’s social emotional skills in the transition to school please book a start-up session with one of our occupational therapists. We can organised an assessment and determine whether individual therapy or one of our group programs may be able to support your child in getting ready for a fun and happy school experience!