Imagine that you go to work in the morning and spend your entire day not knowing how to navigate the parameters of your workplace. You’re unsure of your job description, title, and workplace culture….and no one will give you any answers. By the end of the day, you feel utterly exhausted merely as a result of attempting to navigate a world with no structure or boundaries. Now, imagine you’re a child. This is how children with limited play skills might feel as they are expected to respond to situations for which they don’t have the skillset each time they come in contact with a peer.
Play is the single most important mechanism children utilize to learn about their universe. Play provides a framework to explain imaginative and real events in a child’s world. It allows them to learn about independence, manners, and character, as well as build confidence and practice new skills. Yet, some children have difficulty learning how to properly navigate these interactions.
The good news? You can help.
Play at Any Age
Play skills are developed in a progression. Although there are times in which a child may fluctuate between all levels of play, the following indicates the age-appropriate development of peer interactions.
Solitary play (ages 0-2): Child is completely captivated with play and does not seem to notice other children.
- Learns through trial and error
- Copies other children and adults
- Looks at other children playing but does not join in the play
- Likes playing with adults as well as by himself/herself
Onlooker play (2-2 ½): Child is interested in other children’s play but does not join in. He/she may ask questions.
Parallel play (2 ½- 3): Child shares the same space with peers but doesn’t actively engage with them.
- Begins to use symbols in his play, such as using a stick as a sword
- Starts to show some reasoning skills… may still learn by trial and error.
- Copies other children and adults’ behaviors and language
Associative play (3-4): Child is interested in pursuing social interactions with peers while they play.
- Shows more reasoning skills
- Begins to ask “why” and “how” questions
- Plays imaginatively, for instance, dress-up
Cooperative play (4+): Children play in groups of two or more with a common goal in mind; they often adopt roles and act as a group.
- Shows understanding and uses reason related to experience
- Begins to understand simple rules in games
- Plays cooperatively, taking turns
Should I Be Concerned About My Child’s Play Skills?
- Flexible: child can add onto others’ play schemas*, play story** can change throughout, child does not become distraught if a peer/parent adds their ideas
- Internally Reinforcing
Atypical or Disordered Play:
- Ritualistic: child engages with toy in the same order/manner, every time he/she plays with toy
- Difficulty with Generalizations: child has difficulty accepting new patterns or rules, attempts to utilize one general rule for all similar events (i.e. “I know the youngest person goes first in Sorry, so I expect that the youngest person goes first in all games.”)
- Repetitive: child performs the same action repetitively with a toy that doesn’t suit its purpose, ie. flipping, stacking, ordering items or repeats the same phrase over & over again while engaging
- Limited Interests: child frequently finds a way to steer play story to a few favorite interests
- Rigid: may accept when parents and peers join his/her play schema, but only by child’s rules and with his/her interests
- Difficulty “bouncing back” from unexpected events in play: may recoil when a peer introduces a dinosaur, for example, when child expected story to progress in a certain direction. May become upset at changes or quit altogether
- Avoids eye contact, or eye contact may be fleeting
- Often requires prompting for basic communication, i.e. saying hello when approached by peer
- Often includes non-reciprocal language: response frequently does not match question
- Difficult for child to enter into an already-developed play scheme: two peers are pretending to be firemen, third child wants to join but can only talk about/pretend to be a doctor
*Play schema: diagrammatic presentation; a structured framework or plan
**Play story: the story that is told through the play schema
Parent How-To Guide
If your child has underdeveloped play skills, here are some ways to assist in his/her development to encourage parallel, associative, and cooperative play:
- Provide Opportunities
- Allow your child time for free play with same-aged peers
- Don’t “helicopter” parent during free play, but provide modeling if necessary
- Provide plenty of materials to encourage imaginary play, i.e. dress-up clothes, pretend food, cash register
- Encourage symbolic play: child engages in imaginary play with an item and calls it something else, i.e. uses a banana as a telephone
- Model Feelings & Behavior to Encourage Problem-Solving
- Provide your child with words to explain feelings
- “Jimmy, it looks like you’re sad because Sally isn’t sharing her toy with you. Let’s tell Sally how you’re feeling together.”
- If your child is old enough, encourage him to use the words himself. “Jimmy, you can say, ‘Sally, I am sad because I want to play with that toy too.’”
- Starting your modeling sentences with the phrase “you can say…” is a very powerful way to neutrally provide your child with the words he/she may not know how to express
- Provide your child with options for independent problem-solving
- “Jimmy, do you want to wait until Sally is done with the toy or ask her if she can share it with you?”
- This allows the child to choose between 2 options and learn to find solutions independently
- Set Expectations. Especially if your child demonstrates rigid behavior!
- Be sure to set expectations before engaging in task
- “Jimmy, we are going to the playground. At the playground, I expect you to play properly with friends. That means sharing the equipment, speaking nicely, and waiting your turn.”
- Give Positive Reinforcement
- Encourage proper behavior and play skills by offering both natural consequences and praise.
- Consequence, stated before engaging in task: “Jimmy, if you don’t follow the rules we discussed at the playground, we will need to go home immediately.”
- Praise, stated after task is completed: “Jimmy, way to go! You followed all the rules by taking your turn and speaking nicely to your new friends. I’m proud of you.”
Seek Outside Help
If your child doesn’t seem to improve with these at-home tips, seek the assistance of an occupational or developmental therapist for hands-on support for both you and your child.
Parten, M. (1933). Social play among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 28, 136-147.