The ability to play together with other children is a skill that children develop over time. Some children such as those with developmental delays or autism spectrum disorder may find this particularly challenging. Children with ASD in particular often show a preference for playing alone while their peers enjoy playing together.
This does not mean that these children cannot learn to play with others and enjoy it. Social play has many benefits from children such as developing language, communication, social and problem solving skills. Children with special needs can learn this and often then do find it fun. Some develop a desire to play with others but may be unsure about how to go about it. They may need support to learn to enter play and play cooperatively with others in a way that works for them and for their peers.
Do remember though that all children engage in some solitary play and this has value too. Some children need more solitary "down time" than others, especially children who find social interactions challenging and their need for this should be respected.
Levels of Social Play
A model of the levels of social play children engage in was developed by Parten in the 1920's and has been studied by many researchers since. These are still seen to be a valid way of describing children's play interactions today. Those stages are:
Unoccupied behaviour. At this level the child is not really engaged in any particular activity, rather they may move around, look briefly at things that catch their interest or just sit and look about.
Onlooker behaviour describes a child when they watch other children play. They may talk to the other children, but do not join in the activity. They will focus on a particular child or group of children and stay close to them, rather than looking at random activities that catch their interest.
Solitary play is when a child plays alone. The child plays with different toys to other children nearby and does not pay attention to what the others are doing.
Parrallel play is when the child plays independently but with the same toys as others who are playing nearby. Though the child plays alongside the others with the same types of toys they do not affect what the others are doing and use the toys in their own way.
Associative play is when the child plays with the same toys as other children and may swap toys back and forth. They will all do the same type of activity with the toys but there is no real structure, goal or end product to the play. Individual interests rather than group goals are still the focus.
Cooperative play is when children play together to achieve a shared end point, to follow a shared story line such as acting out things that they have seen in real life, or to play a structured game.
Originally it was though that children matured from earlier to later forms of play, but it now recognised that even more mature children do use some solitary or parallel play. The type of play used often depends on the type of activity. For example art or construction activities are often more suited to solitary or parallel play. Generally though as children reach preschool age they show more of the later stages of social play. Their play also becomes more complex in terms of structure and content.
If your child has difficulty playing with others some things that you can try include:
- Offering a range of age appropriate toys and activities. If your child has very specific and limited interests try offering some things that are similar to what your child enjoys but perhaps are also things that other children may enjoy. For example if your child is fascinated with garbage trucks try introducing garbage trucks and also diggers and dump trucks into the sand pit. Later introduce a child who enjoys this type of play to play alongside or with your child.
- Encouraging your child to imitate actions with objects. Expand your child’s actions by copying them then adding an extra action to the sequence and see if they will copy you. Then involve another child such as a sibling, copy the other child and encourage your child to do the same.
- Talking about your child’s play by acting as a narrator. “Look teddy is eating his tea, he likes that food, now he is getting full”. Include another child and talk about what they are doing also to help draw your child's attention to the other child's actions.
- Providing opportunities to play with children of a similar developmental level, who also have some shared interests. You may need to play with them initially to support and cue your child.
- Developing your child's ability to take turns. Initially play games with short simple turns, such as rolling a ball or car back and forth or taking turns to put a piece in a puzzle or shape sorter. Introduce another child into these simple activities initially, "let's do the puzzle, together with Jack". Gradually move to more open ended and less structured activities. You may need to use visual cues, hand over hand support, verbal cues and gestures to cue your child's turns to start with. Gradually remove these cues and wait for your child to respond.
Remember to set your child up for success in playing with others. This may mean:
- Keeping play sessions short initially, watching for signs when your child has had enough and offering a solitary activity for each child to give your child a break when they need it.
- Supervising closely while children are playing together to manage any problem behaviours.
- Discussing with the other child's parent that your child finds playing with others tricky and that they may need some extra help and support. You may do this with the other child too if it is appropriate for their age and maturity level.
- Removing any very special toys that your child has that they may not like other children to touch, prior to the play session to avoid conflicts.
- Carefully selecting play partners initially. Same age peers with similar interests can be good, however some children may respond better to slightly older children (who are more patient and understanding) or slightly younger children (who are closer to their developmental level) if they are socially immature.
Talking Matters provides speech pathology and occupational therapy. If you would like to work with our great team in our bright, child-friendly, therapy space at Elizabeth Downs find out more about Talking Matters and by checking our website or calling our office on (08) 8255 7137.
If you are concerned about your child's development including play skills, motor or sensory skills, communication skills, social skills or learning check our website to see how Talking Matters may be able to help.
We are running small group sessions to develop social play skills for preschool children in the July school holidays. If you feel your child could benefit please call us on (08) 8255 7137 to find out more.
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