Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning, but for children play is serious learning.
Play, really, is the work of childhood. That work is the activity through which children build lifelong skills and abilities.
Taking part in social interactions with their peers and familiar adults is one really important way to learn and develop some of those new skills.
When do children begin to relate to their peers?
Many babies and toddlers have regular opportunities to engage with their peers, and some develop long-lasting relationships with particular peers, that can begin from birth.
By six months of age, babies can communicate with other babies by smiling, touching and babbling.
What skills promote early peer relations?
Many research papers have examined early peer relations, and researchers have concluded that early peer relations depend on the following skills that develop during the first two years of life:
(1) managing joint attention
(2) regulating emotions
(3) inhibiting impulses
(4) imitating another’s actions
(5) understanding cause-and-effect relationships
(6) linguistic competence
These skills may be enhanced when children are interacting with adults or older children, such as parents, siblings or early years educators.
Such interactions model these important skills, but it is when children are interacting with their peers in a range of social situations that they can practice and refine them further.
It is vital that they too have plenty of opportunities to interact with their peers in an enabling environment that is responsive to their individual needs.
Do early peer relations have a long-term impact on children’s development?
There are clear links between very early peer relations, and the development of social and emotional skills later on in life. For example, young children who are able to engage in complex play with peers develop skills for and become more competent in building relationships and negotiating with other children once they reach their preschool years.
But while research suggests, babies and children need social interactions from birth, children really begin to socialise from around three or four years of age. This is the time when they begin to share ideas and toys and follow established rules and guidelines.
This is really where children learn and practice their social skills, like cooperating, being flexible, taking turns, and solving problems. They can work together to build something or perhaps take part in a simple game together.
As young children develop their play, it becomes increasingly complex involving more and more interactions with others. As educators, allowing children the time and space to play with one another is a must. It offers children the chance to experience the rhythms and melodies of social interactions and to remember them more easily.
What are the benefits of social play?
Improves social skills
Having strong social skills will help young children succeed in many aspects of life. Through these interactions children learn how to work together, solve arguments amongst themselves and establish friendships.
Social play helps to build confidence. Often when children play together there is less direct adult supervision, meaning children cannot rely on an adult to tell them what to do – instead they have to organise themselves. This offers children the chance to gain in confidence by thinking independently, taking on leadership roles and voicing their opinions.
Develops emotional intelligence
Social play helps to develop emotional intelligence and empathy. which are just as important in later life as academic intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the key to forming good relationships with others, relationships which are vital to both personal and professional success later in life.
While some young children naturally work well as part of a team, others need more time to develop that ability. Social play, especially taking part in team games, encourages children to lead, or support their teammates, with a wealth of opportunities to share, take turns and show respect for others. It is a great way of encouraging children to learn and to practise all the skills that working together requires.
How can adults support children’s social play?
Social play with peers plays an important role in children’s lives at much earlier points in development than we once might have thought. Experiences in the first two or three years of life have implications for children’s acceptance within their peer group in their early years but also during later school years.
Young children may find social play and interactions difficult because:
(1) They often do not know what is expected of them in particular social situations
(2) They do not have the experience and knowledge of different and appropriate ways to solve conflicts
(3) They are naturally egocentric, so it is hard for them to understand others’ intentions and feelings
Because of this, as early years educators we can support children’s social skill development by playing and modelling the positive social behaviours we want them to use.
With our support for positive behaviours and interactions, as well as providing them with lots of opportunities for social play, children will develop the social skills they need to get along with others throughout their lives, and they will have had lots of fun learning them!