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6/20/22blog post

how to develop social skills in kids at every age

at every developmental stage, there are ways to play that builds connections with your kids

In 2022 thanks to the growing use of technology and an ongoing pandemic that is keeping people isolated, there seem to be fewer opportunities for kids to socialize these days. Luckily, there are ways that parents and caregivers can help develop social skills in their child. Social skills are important because they are how our children learn to connect with the world and grow up to be resilient adults.

There are ways to help your child develop social skills whether they're an infant, toddler, pre-school aged, in elementary school, a pre-teen or a teen. No matter your child’s age, here are some things you can do to guide their social skills as well as a free resource to help you plan some activities for this summer. 

infancy:

Social skills to focus on: eye contact, building connections  

  • Peek-a-boo 

Such a fun and simple game to play that’s made parents and kids grin from ear to ear for centuries. Playing peek-a-boo can help reinforce eye contact which is an important social skill to develop.  

  • “Where’d they go?” 

It’s important to begin getting your baby used to you leaving but make it fun so that you don’t contribute to any separation anxiety. Make an announcement to baby that you’ll “be right back,” step out of the room for a few seconds, then pop back in with a smile! Be sure that you make an announcement, don’t leave when baby’s back is turned, and don’t stay gone too long! 

  • Singing songs  

Sing-a-long songs with movements and easy sounds (like animal noises) are the perfect way to demonstrate following directions (clap your hands, wave bye-bye, etc.) and help with verbal skills. Baby will follow along and be ready to take on more words in no time! 

toddler: 

Social skills to focus on: following rules, naming emotions 

  • Let’s take turns! 

When playing games, come up with activities that require taking turns. Emphasize that one person is going to go at a time, and the child should wait patiently while someone else is doing the activity. It’s important that caregivers practice and display taking turns at home before the child is expected to take turns with other children outside the house. 

  • Read books about emotions 

Reading and acting out story books that discuss emotions are important to exposing your child to these concepts. Some examples of our favorite books include The ABC’s of Emotions and Llama Llama Mad at Mama.  

  • Sing songs with directions 

Learning how to listen and follow along is an important social skill to learn but you can make it fun! Sing songs with your child that require following directions. One of the best examples is the song “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”  

preschool: 

Social skills to focus on: playing with others, following rules  

At this age, children will transition from parallel play (playing next to other children) to associative play (playing with others). It’s important that caregivers are a part of this transition. Encourage your child to invite others to play but stay nearby to be a referee or guide through the activities. Try some of these games:  

  • Red light/Green light 
  • Loud or soft 
  • Simon says 

early elementary 

Social skills to focus on: getting along with others, collaborating 

 

  • Pretend Play 

At this age, you should begin prompting your child to initiate play with others. But it’s also important for caregivers to participate in pretend play with their kids as well. Pretend play allows caregivers a window into how their kids see their everyday life and interactions, which can build a foundation for understanding the child more. It also helps kids to develop empathy as they imagine how others may navigate through life. Here are some tips to make pretend play effective:  

  • Play face to face. 
  • Follow your child’s lead and emphasize their interests. 
  • Limit the number of toys being used during pretend play. Too many toys can become overwhelming or overstimulating.  

 

  • Follow the Leader 

Playing follow the leader with your child helps them to recognize and follow directions. Encourage your child to play “follow the leader” with other children, and make sure the leader changes often, because it allows them to learn that sometimes it is their turn to be a leader while other times it is their turn to be a follower.  

upper elementary 

Social skills to focus on: managing emotions, interpreting body language, communication  

  • Play charades 

Use gestures and body language to get your point across in a fun way! Playing charades helps kids to focus on perspective and using their imagination. It also helps develop non-verbal communication skills.  

  • Team sports 

Now is a great time to get your child involved in team sports. Sports can help kids learn how to work together, develop conflict resolution skills, engage in good sportsmanship and learn how to respect others. Of course, the adults should also be modeling these same characteristics on the sidelines as their child takes part in games and matches.  

middle school 

Social skills to focus on: creating an individual identity and establishing a friend group 

  • “Would you rather?” 

“Would you rather” is a fun game to play with middle-school-aged kids. This game helps develop their own sense of identity as they decide what they do and don’t prefer. (Important note: make sure to play along with your child or provide them with pre-approved questions to ensure this game remains appropriate.) 

  • Board and card games 

At this age, playing board or card games is a great way to get kids disconnected from the internet. Playing games can create connections and good memories. It also reinforces conflict resolution and turn-taking at a different level.  

  • Team sports 

Kids at this age should continue to participate in team sports as it provides many opportunities for exercise, connection and relationship building, which is important for mental health. 

high school 

Social skills to focus on: growing into a mature adult 

At this stage, caregivers should focus on giving the child more autonomy. Instead of initiating play or orchestrating activities, it’s great to provide encouragement and take more of a back seat as your child grows into their own identity. Here are some activities to encourage them to take part in to continue developing social skills.  

  • Volunteering 

Volunteering is proven to increase self-esteem and empathy in people. It can help create a sense of purpose and direction for your child, allow them to interact with others and potentially open doors of opportunity for their future.  

  • Team sports 

Continuing to participate in team sports will allow your child to strengthen their relationships, build their passions and find an outlet. Sports also allow teens to learn that their level of success depends on their level of effort and dedication.  

free resource! summer connection calendar 

While your kids are out of school for the summer, you'll have plenty of free time to give some of these connection activities a try.  You can also build stronger connections by planning events for the whole family. Use our free resource, the summer connections calendar, to brainstorm and make plans for everyone to get excited about. Share your ideas with us online using the hashtag #OnOurSleeves. 

Emily Weitz, BSW, LSW

Community Behavioral Health Outreach Specialist
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