Early years expert explains how to build toddler social skills in a time of social distancing
Socialising with other babies and toddlers is a crucial part of early years development. But with social distancing regulations making interactions increasingly rare, what can parents do to ensure their toddler doesn’t miss out on crucial development of social skills? Laura House, Education Lead at childminding experts tiney, provides some advice on boosting your toddler’s social skills amidst the pandemic.
1. Model pretend play with your toddler
Social play develops in stages. From birth until the age of two, lots of this will be solitary play. Your little one will be content playing alone and not as interested in playing with others. But, from the age of about two, they may start displaying spectator behaviour, where they watch other children playing but don’t necessarily join in. The next stage is parallel play: playing alongside or near others but not directly with them. It isn’t until the age of three or four that most children actually start to play cooperatively in more elaborate games (‘I’m the pirate and you’re the shark’).
For the three-and-unders who currently aren’t seeing other children as much as they might otherwise be, adults or parents could model what pretend play looks like, so they can start to experience it. This could mean showing them how a wooden brick can magically become a car, or how much teddy loves tucking into a slice of cake at the teddy bears’ picnic. So, think like a toddler and get playing! But if this doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t worry – there’s a huge amount your little one can learn from watching you and imitating what they see at home. A toddler playing at sweeping the floor, ‘folding’ the laundry or helping to lay the table is learning important skills about independence, respect for their environment, and how everyone plays their part.
2. Play games which develop communication, language and social skills
Developing language skills is a crucial part of a toddler’s education and socialisation, and there are lots of things parents and caregivers can do to help nurture these skills. Turn-taking games that require listening in order to develop communication and language are a useful tool, because they mirror the turn-taking that happens in conversations. For example, taking turns to roll a ball to each other – with the adult clearly articulating and repeating “one, two, three, GO!” each time – will help your toddler learn to mirror, practise and understand social cues. Other games – such as Simon Says or pretending to call your toddler on a toy telephone – are also fun ways to interact and develop communication and language through play.
3. Use this time to foster a warm, trusting relationship with your toddler
It’s really important that toddlers build trusting relationships with responsive caregivers. Responsive interactions with adults help to shape children’s brains and strengthen the neurological pathways which form the foundations of future social skills. A key way to do this is through ‘serve and return’ interactions. A child will ‘serve’ by reaching out for interaction with some kind of expression – be that physical, vocal or facial. An adult or parent can then ‘return the serve’ by speaking back or interacting with the child in a clear and attentive way. These responsive back-and-forth exchanges help build toddlers’ confidence and trust, and teaches them that their voice matters. Being aware of what captures your child’s attention, sharing their focus and talking and listening to your child all make a huge difference and will lay the building blocks for future development.
4. Support your toddler to name their feelings
Helping toddlers to name their feelings is a crucial part of social development, and it’s currently one that’s more important than ever. It’s amazing how much children pick up from the adults around them. So, no matter how much you’ve tried to protect them from it, it’s inevitable that they’ll notice if you’re feeling stressed or anxious at the moment. The important thing to remember is that that’s ok – and we can use these feelings to teach our children important lessons about self-awareness and the normality of experiencing a range of feelings. Narrating your own feelings is a great first step: ‘I’m feeling a bit upset now because we haven’t been able to see Grandpa for a long time now, and I miss him. Shall we video call him to say hello?’; or, ‘Right now I am feeling very tired and I need to take a rest. Shall we have some quiet time?’. Ask your toddler, ‘I can tell you’re feeling frustrated as we’ve been indoors for so long. Shall we play a jumping game so we can move our bodies?’.
There are also many ways to help your child identify how they’re feeling. This might be through drawing or using certain colours to link feelings to descriptions (try searching for the ‘Colour Monster’ for good exercises on this). And there are some great books that can help as well. I’d recommend The Bad Tempered Ladybird, Where the Wild Things Are and No Matter What.
5. Introduce a small new thing every day
In times of change, young children need familiarity and a sense of security. This can come from a familiar daily routine or rhythm; a predictable pattern or flow for their days. But with restrictions on the range of experiences young children might have access to outside of the home, toddlers are being exposed to less variety in their day to day lives. But making sure they are experiencing new perspectives regularly is very important. Discovering new things helps little ones develop their resilience when confronted with something unfamiliar. Therefore, try and find one thing each day that they haven’t come across before.
It can be something small: remember, to a young child, there is potential for fascination in almost anything. Introducing a new thing doesn’t mean buying a new toy every day – it could mean inviting them to see something that is familiar in a different way. ‘Look at all the different shapes of these apples! Where are the seeds? What happens if you cut the apple across the middle?’; ‘We usually walk to the shop that way – let’s go a different way today, I wonder what we’ll find?’; ‘Let’s move the pots in the garden around, I wonder if we will find any snails?’.
It could also be introducing a new texture: ‘What happens if we scrunch the tin foil?’. You could add shaving foam to paint to make it fluffy like a cloud, or squeeze a drop of essential oil into the bath. You could even put on a different kind of music at breakfast time; anything that will remind them (and us!) that the world is big and wonderful beyond our home, and full of exciting things to discover. It doesn’t matter how small it is; what’s vital is the variety to help build toddler social skills.
6. You’re doing great
Right now, it can feel overwhelming trying to parent. Lots of the support structures that parents of toddlers would normally rely on – whether that’s family, play groups, or access to the local library – aren’t available. But whilst it’s an unpredictable situation, children can be resilient. The most important thing is to make your toddler feel safe and loved, and we can do this by listening to them, talking to them and playing with them. Remember, building toddler social skills doesn’t need to cost money! There is a huge amount of advice online, and a wealth of free activities available to support you and your child during this time.
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