We’re excited to be back in the classrooms with your children, enjoying the fresh start that a new year brings. Winter is also the season of coziness, a time to deepen our connections and make new ones. Below we offer some inspiration and advice from Jules Spotts, the School’s psychologist for more than 20 years, on the importance of play to social development in young children, and how parents can help their child build intimate connections and learn the skills—like turn-taking, reciprocity and finding pleasure in time spent together—that will help them become a good friend.
Dr. Spotts on Positive Social Development and Play in Young Children:
Social interaction begins very early in children’s lives. You smile and coo and croon to your child as you are feeding her, changing him, putting her to bed, swinging him in a small swing set, and so on. And you get back smiles and soft, pleasant sounds as your child takes in your social input and gives back at a level he or she is able to respond to. You have begun to help in the process of building your child’s separate self and have set in motion that the separate self will be a socially interactive self, giving and getting social pleasure in relationships. Certainly feeding is a task, with a goal to be accomplished, as is diaper changing, dressing, putting to bed and the like. As vital is the social, interactional component of these tasks and the laying down of the building blocks for satisfying reciprocal relationships.
Begin early the process of reading books to your children. Point to the pictures as you read the words and even help your child to point to the relevant picture, with affect-laden pleasure as you do. Reading to your children is another avenue for providing nurturance, and as early as you can begin the process of reading together, this nurturing becomes amplified into a richly rewarding mutual exchange. Continue the reading process and storytelling process with your children for as long as possible. All will get pleasure out of it. You can even personalize this practice. As an example, you and your child might construct and create your own Goodnight Moon book and update this personalized version periodically at different developmental stages.
Play is an excellent avenue for aiding in your child’s social development. Play moves through the stages of playing by oneself, playing next to someone and into playing with someone. As early as possible, even before board games, introduce the idea of taking turns. “You put a piece into the Shape Sorting Box, and now it is my turn to put a piece in.” At a very basic level, taking turns is social interaction. Sprinkling these interactions with liberal amounts of verbalization adds richness and breadth to the interaction. Simple board games such as Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders are good early ventures for you and your child. Add some additional features to the game: “When you pick a color, name something that is that color, and move your piece to the next place that is that color.” Describe the pictures at the top and bottom of each ladder, and for each chute, and ask your child to explain the connection. And of course games require basic turn-taking and following the rules. The card game Compare (once known as “War”) offers the same infinite possibilities for taking turns, interpretation and dialogue. Games such as Sorry, Trouble, Shut the Box, Othello and others are additional opportunities for socialization. Simon is another fine game avenue into the socialization process. Spend time getting to know your child, her interests and developmental level, so that your game and activity choices are fitting.
Of course, these games can become tools for interaction between siblings and jaunts with friends as well. Emphasize enjoying the process rather than who is winning. It is sometimes a fine direction to play a game for a defined time period and to stop before there is a winner and loser. In that way, one emphasizes the joy in the process of interactive play. “But who won?” “Nobody, it was such fun to play together with you.”
Careful rationing of screen time is a necessary component during child-rearing. Screens include TV, computers, tablets, phones, game consoles, etc. The valuable relationship is child to human being rather than child to device. If there is a way to have kids play video or electronic games with each other, not solo child to machine, this, too, can help social development. Beware the content of so many video games.
Use every opportunity during play to help in the building of a solid, positive, independent self in your child. “With that smile on your face, it is clear how good you are feeling about how this game is going.” “You must feel so good about that move.” This type of praise is infinitely more valuable than the old saw “Good job.”
Not to be neglected here is the value of the good old-fashioned catch, with a ball going back and forth between two people. What a fabulous model for social reciprocity! I throw, you catch and then we reverse the process. And on it goes, all while we talk with each other.
Spend time with your children early and often in a continuous interactive way. Everyone will enjoy the process and be building for the future.
It’s a happy talent to know how to play well with others! We look forward to nurturing playful relationships at school and helping your children make new friends.