We recently introduced our new blog series about play by looking at what play is and its importance. You can check out our first post here. In this blog, Speech Pathology Lead Aria May shares her thoughts on social play.
Play is first and foremost FUN and chosen and directed by the child. It can also be a way that other skills are developed. Play can support social interaction, but it is important to do this in a way that continues to put play’s rejuvenating purpose first.
Social types of play
Play can be thought about across a few different continuums – including social play. Traditionally, ‘social play’ has been thought of as developing in a linear fashion. We would like to challenge you to reconsider this.
What ways do you enjoy playing? For me, sometimes I enjoy playing a co-operative boardgame with my family, at other times, I like fiddling with things in my hands like a paper clip bending into different shapes. At other times, I enjoy doing pottery alongside a friend (but I would hate for them to touch my project!). All these play experiences are enriching for me, though they have different levels of social engagement. Sometimes I am bored on my own and seek out others to have fun with, though I do not want to be in ‘co-operative’ play the whole time, that would be exhausting! We all have different preferences of social engagement for different contexts and situations.
There are different types of social play and all types of play are important and enjoyable:
Exploring: Here your child may be learning about and discovering how their body moves. Your child may enjoy using all their senses to explore their environment (e.g. scrunching up material or feeling rice between their hands). This type of play sets the foundation for social play. Babies are set up to play and explore in this way from birth, but it’s something that we all enjoy – even adults.
Independent: Your child may enjoy playing alone. They may enjoy some form of joint play with adults as they begin to actively switch their attention between objects and adults (e.g. playing a peekaboo game).
Spectator: Your child may begin to watch other children playing but isn’t yet playing with them.
Side by side: When a child plays alongside or near others but does not play with them this is referred to as parallel play. Your child may observe others playing and may be playing with a similar set of toys as another peer.
Associative: Children may start to share play materials and interact with others during play. A child might be doing an activity related to the children around them but may be interacting with another child. For example, children may be taking turns on playground equipment, or doing cooking in a pretend kitchen. Each child may have their own goal but may be using the same materials and talking to one another while playing.
Cooperative: When a child plays together with others and has interest in both the activity and other children involved in playing, they are participating in cooperative play. In this type of play, children have ‘assigned roles’ (e.g. playing shopkeeper and customer).
You can keep the SCERTS communication stage (e.g. Social, Language and Conversation partner) in mind when thinking about your child’s play. We know there can often be differences in children’s play and their communication, so it is important to keep in mind your child’s preferences, strengths and needs.
When we impose demands or our own agenda in the play, we change the essence of play in many ways. Finding the balance between building on your child’s skills and interests while ensuring play is still a fun, restorative activity can be tricky, but when in doubt, step back, pause and watch for a moment - a way to join with your child will soon present itself. Play sometimes doesn’t come as naturally to adults, so following your child’s lead in play and remaining curious to where the play might lead is a great place to start.
SCERTS Communication Stage
Transactional supports (what you can do)
Playing with a Social Partner(someone who communicates with gestures, behaviour and vocalisations (e.g. noises, sounds):
If your child is a social partner, you may find your child is more interested in the exploring type of play, independent play or starting to notice others in play. You may like to spend some time noticing how your child plays and copying what they do. Children pay the most attention to what they are interested in, so by figuring that out, they may pay more attention to us too. For example, your child may enjoy banging blocks together. You could also grab your own blocks and bang together too. The idea of having extra play materials for you to use is important, as it means you can join in by copying and without taking any of the materials away from your child.
It may be helpful to get down to your child’s level and ensure you can see each other’s faces). It makes it easier to notice each other and figure out what your child may be interested in next.
Playing with a Language Partner(someone who communicates with single words, short phrases, symbols, pictures, and signs):
Your child may be enjoying some joint play with adults (particularly if there is a movement aspect) – like chasey or a round the garden type of game. Again you may find it helpful to get your own stuff in play, so you can copy what your child is doing and talk using simple language about what is happening. If your child uses 1-2 word sentences to speak, you can use the same sort of length. If your child uses another form of communication like signs or pictures, you should use that form too.
If your child is still very independent in play, but you would like to connect with them during playtime, try playing alongside or in the same room. If your child already is comfortable with this, start with playing alongside and noticing what your child is interested in within the play and join in. If your child becomes upset, go back to playing alongside.
Playing with a Conversation Partner(someone who communicates with more creative phrases and sentences):
Conversation partners may enjoy all the different play types from exploring to co-operative play. A conversation partner has more language to be able to join in with social play, though may need support with things like sharing in the play, being flexible and playing in different ways, and coming up with ideas. If your child is starting to do pretend play with others, it may be easier to start with familiar activities or enjoyable interests (e.g., shopping, animals) compared to less familiar themes (e.g., space).
Some children may want to join in with a group but don’t know how to. Practicing skills with them and helping them generalise those play skills to school or playgrounds may be helpful.
To support your child to play with peers, you may want to take a step back to be more of an observer, and just join in if there is a tricky situation (e.g., the children can’t agree on what to play, sharing of toys etc). Try and step out again as soon as you can.
Take time to notice the preferences your child has with a play partner – sometimes it can be supportive for a slightly older child to join in or at other times, a younger child may be your child’s play partner preference. Anything goes – whatever works for your child!
Over the next few weeks you may like to think about what types of social play your child enjoys most. You can think about what happens if you join in the play? What happens if a sibling or a friend joins in with the play? If your child is at daycare or school, the staff there may also have some ideas on how your child enjoys playing with peers.
Children need down time and playing their own way, but at other times we can use play to connect with them and help them develop and build new skills and support their social communication.