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The Importance of Social Play
by Toni Linder
Social Play, Skills, and Development
Make time for play! Playing and learning with games is not only fun, but it can also help children develop essential social competence that will benefit them throughout life. Children need to be able to communicate their own thoughts and feelings in some way, and read others’ social cues. This means they need to be able to recognize the meaning of facial expressions, gestures, and words, and understand the reasons behind other’s actions.
Children learn these things through interactions with others, particularly in play. Emotional regulation, or the ability to control and express emotions in appropriate ways is also necessary for positive social interactions. We are socially attracted to people who are happy and fun to be with. On the flip side, children who are grumpy, easily frustrated, or angry are not so fun to play with! Behavioral regulation, or the ability to act in ways that are expected for the situation, is a companion skill to emotional regulation.
Another important social skill is being able to communicate (verbally or nonverbally) with others in a way that acknowledges the value of each other’s contribution to the interaction. Furthermore, learning to negotiate and compromise is another positive ability to game play.
These social skills develop through all interactions, beginning with initial care and play interactions with caregivers. Because play is such a pleasurable form of interaction, and children, therefore, seek out play, it is one of the best paths to gaining social competence! Many forms of play encourage interaction among peers. Block building, sports and gross motor play, and dramatic play all support developing social skills.
Games Encourage Social Play
Supporting social play is simple! Card and board games are a great way to help children learn positive social interactions with people of all ages.
First, the rules are built in, so there is no need to negotiate how to play. However, you may find that younger children like making up their own rules!
Second, turn-taking is required, so children learn to wait for their turn (e.g., patience). This also provides an opportunity for kids to pay attention to someone else’s play (e.g., social awareness).
Third, in most games, someone wins, and the other players lose. Consequently, players need to learn to be a “good loser”. Being a good loser means being able to feel good about another person being happy. This helps children understand and respond to another’s feelings. A good loser is also able able to contain sad or frustrated feelings without acting out (e.g., modulate emotions). On the other hand, players must learn how to be a “good winner,” who is aware of others’ feelings and doesn’t gloat (e.g., empathy). Games of chance, where luck is primarily involved to win, are often the first games children play, so they have little control over the outcome, which can be challenging!
Strategy Games Encourage Social Play in Older Kids
“Games of strategy for older children have their own advantages and disadvantages, as well as learning opportunities. A sense of pride accompanies winning a strategy game while losing requires the child to reflect on what could have been done differently (e.g., self-reflection and flexible thinking).
With strategy games, players learn spatial reasoning, risk and reward, and sometimes specific academic skills. Players can discuss their moves and talk about their thinking. Paying attention to someone else’s ideas provides a way for children to learn strategy through observation and conversation. Whether the play was a good one or not is determined by the results, helping children to consider actions and consequences.
Game play benefits all areas of development, including cognitive, motor, and communication, but the development of social competence is one of the primary benefits of play. Are you ready to commit to the daily practice of PLAY? Check out our Play Promise blog to learn more and initiate your own play promise at home!
Dr. Toni Linder is a leader in the field of early childhood development and early childhood special education. She works with children of diverse backgrounds and ability levels, including children that are gifted and talented, who have disabilities or come from backgrounds of poverty, and those from multicultural backgrounds.
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