Supporting social play: What is it and how we can help our kids learn?

Nicole Katzenellenbogen

Nicole Katzenellenbogen

Nicole is an Occupational Therapist who is passionate about working with babies and young children. She brings practical, play-led advice that shares tools parents can use in playtime to foster and nurture their toddler’s development.
Updated on Mar 07, 2024 · 5 mins read
Supporting social play: What is it and how we can help our kids learn?

I will admit I am slightly obsessed with play. Play is a child’s occupation. It is how they learn, grow, interact, integrate knowledge, role play feelings and situations and make friends. Play should be part of all of our lives where possible. Luckily, being parents means that we get to play all over again, this time with even more awareness of its power.

What is social play?

There are various kinds of play children engage in: Sensory, physical, imaginative, creative and constructive play. They sometimes play on their own, with adults or with their peers. Social play is essential during the preschool years as it helps children develop social skills, establish friendships, and learn how to share, cooperate, take turns, and express emotions.

Social play may involve structured rules to follow such as ‘hide and seek’ or turn taking games, however I feel the magic really happens when children self-direct their play and partnerships in pretend or imaginative play with no real set of rules of a game, but rather some social ‘rules’.  

Why is social play valuable?

I recently watched children playing in a sandpit. They had wooden blocks, spades and large LEGO® DUPLO® bricks and digging tools at their disposal. The ranking of the eldest children as leader, and younger ones as followers, seemed so natural. While there were directors and do-ers, there was also collaboration in ideas, team work to carry out the project and joint joy when things worked out.

There was also a lot of laughter! I sat there in awe. These little beings were talking to one another, sharing ideas and space, and together they changed the sand pit from an open space, to a mini-empire. What struck me so clearly was that none of this would have been possible if children were sitting side-by-side on devices and it is no wonder that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a statement on toys, advising parents of young children to go for “high quality traditional (that is physical) toys, rather than elaborate digital one”.

1. It encourages open-mindedness 

We are living in a world of wonder. We can be anything, do anything and are encouraged to reach for the stars. And this is on offer to every child no matter their needs, differences or abilities. Social play promotes moral reasoning and conversations around why other children may use walkers or wheelchairs, why they have glasses or different skin colour can be beautifully worked through using the LEGO® DUPLO® Buildable People with Big Emotions set. 

The customisable characters allow children to mix and match, be creative with the figure’s body parts and emotions, and make the bodies look as they see fit. In this set alone there are 71 engaging bricks and pieces, little builders can take their construction creativity in any direction they choose. A parent can help unpack a child’s understanding of themselves and others with no judgement and only acceptance and tolerance when it is embedded in every day play.

2. It supports emotional development

Social play supports emotional development by providing a way to express and cope with feelings, allows a child to express feelings and teaches children to cope with their feelings as they act out being angry, sad, or worried in a situation they control (Erikson, 1963). Pretend play allows them to think out loud about experiences charged with both pleasant and unpleasant feelings and then allows a parent to facilitate how to deal with these ‘big feelings’. Play opportunities also allow children to learn about empathy and helping others through the games they choose. The faces in the LEGO® DUPLO® Buildable People with Big Emotions reflect happy, sad, scared, angry and excited. Allowing your child to match their emotional state or role play big emotions with an adult. It can also be used as a teaching tool of how to respond in certain situations to build moral capacity and emotional intelligence. An element of social play is that of perspective taking and playing this through bricks is likely to embed the concepts and feelings more than a conversation alone.

3. It inspires critical thinking

Critical thinking is about analysing information and coming up with creative solutions. As parents, we often try to direct a child’s play by giving too many suggestions and interfering with the journey they were exploring. This may give the wrong idea that a child’s ideas are not valid enough, their play is not important enough and that they can only play ‘properly’ with an adult around. Directing their play also decreases their imagination and creativity, which are essential for emotional and cognitive development. Think about using question words to help a child problem-solve and expand their play, e.g “where” can the car go next?, “what” should we do with this?, or “how” can we make the little girl move around the playhouse? We use language and play to carefully build children’s critical thinking and it can all be done while having tons of fun!

Tips for encouraging social play

Social play should be just that,  social and playful!  You can support your little one’s social play by:

  • Having some  social time yourself over the weekends where kids can see you engage with friends in a positive way (we are role models, after all!).
  • Encouraging them to spend time with other children, and facilitating difficult conversations if needed.
  • Bringing out the LEGO DUPLO Buildable People with Big Emotions set for old school play that allows children to create, make, do build and explore.
  • Keep things open ended with less pressure on end results or finished projects.

So all in all, social play has immeasurable benefits to your child’s development. It encourages them to explore diversity, express their emotions, and think critically to achieve collaborative play. By moving your child away from the device and into physical, tangible, and social play, you’re opening up a world of practical teachable moments that sets them up for success (and more importantly, happiness). 

LEGO, LEGO DUPLO and the Minifigure are trademarks of The LEGO Group. ©2024 The LEGO Group.

This is a paid partnership between Kiindred and the LEGO® DUPLO® Brand.

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