Social play is crucial for children to make friends, learn to communicate and share with others, and develop their negotiation skills.
From about two years-old, little ones will play in ‘parallel’, which means they will be playing separate activities side-by-side. Although there isn’t much interaction between them, this is an important transitional step between playing on their own, and becoming interested in play with others.
As they reach the age of four, children will move on to ‘associative’ play where they begin to copy others around them. From around five years-old, children will start to play cooperatively, working with each other on a group goal or theme.
In this article we’re taking a look at how you can create products to get children playing together at each of these stages.
Role play – for example, pretending to cook dinner or dressing up – is a big part of a young child’s playtime and a good way to encourage parallel and associative play. Large play sets such as toy kitchens give children the space to play next to and even copy each other’s behaviour, with enough equipment to do their own thing. Similarly, shared spaces like toy houses or sandpits can encourage children to play side-by-side. Dressing up costumes are a good way to encourage associative play; if one child puts on a costume, another child can put one on too.
As they get older children move onto small world play. They appreciate the details in products much more as their play becomes increasingly complex; the more props, the more realistic their fantasy worlds become. To encourage social play, these sets need to be large enough for two or more children to join in, with enough characters for everyone to have a part to play.
Music is a particularly good social activity for younger children. Sets of instruments work well as children can choose their sound and join in with a group, or mimic each other, through associative play.
Simple play materials such as construction toys, sand, water, or moulding dough are also ideal because they can be shared between children; but there needs to be enough to go around (including tools, such as shape cutters for moulding dough). Younger children can play side-by side or copy one another, while older children may work together with a goal in mind – e.g. making a small beach by scooping all the sand to one end, or constructing a huge tower between themselves.
Puzzles & Games
Puzzles are good for cooperative play as they give children a common goal to work towards. Larger problem-solving tasks, like a giant floor puzzle, make it easier for children to play together.
Card and board games are ideal social activities, but they need to be age-appropriate or children will become frustrated. Children under around six years-old won’t be able to read the instructions, so it’s best if the game is simple enough to learn from an adult, and for children to independently play with their peers. Children can also be encouraged to play in groups or pairs, developing their team-working skills.
Outdoor Play & Sports
There is a big focus on getting children exercising at the moment, and adding social play on top of that is even better. Equipment such as slides and swings are great for getting pre-schoolers to share and take turns, while encouraging older children to play together.
Sports equipment is also good, whether that’s a product that can be played in a pair, or as a team sport. With enough play ideas, something as simple as a football can keep children entertained for hours. It’s important to keep in mind children’s level of physical ability, as well as accessibility – games that don’t require a high level of skill will be more welcoming for those who aren’t into sports, giving them the chance to join in with the game.
Digital play doesn’t exactly spring to mind when you think of getting children to interact with one another, but there are a few ways apps can do this. Games might require two players to control the screen, let children play against one another on two devices (or take turns on one device), or perhaps use the device as a tool in their play (e.g. recording music together).