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What Is Social Play & Why Is It Important? 6 MAJOR Benefits!

By Paula McLaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH | Updated: 27 October 2021

What is Social Play?

Well... Social play is a form of play where young children interact with others. 

Social development is closely linked with cognitive and emotional development and it becomes increasingly important as your child approaches school age. Healthy social play allows children to learn how to interact with others and how to manage their own emotions and behaviour.

What Is Social Play and Why Is It So Important Pin

But here’s the SECRET that you need to know!!

Your baby engages in social play from the day they are born. 

I know... This goes against what every other parenting article you’ve ever read! But it’s TRUE and here’s why…

In early childhood, social skills begin to develop when young babies play and interact with YOU, their parents.

And I know this sounds weird… but social play is not just about playing... 

It’s about developing social skills in your little one so as they grow up, they gradually learn to play with other children in an interactive way in what we would identify as PLAY.

But HOLD ON... What EXACTLY is PLAY then?

What are the 6 types of play?

Play, in any form, is the perfect way for your child to develop their social skills. By listening, paying attention and sharing play experiences, your little one is able to explore their feelings, observe other people and develop self-discipline.

The development of play in early childhood starts gradually from those first engaging babblings and smiles with adults, to what we define and understand as full blown social play at around 4 years of age.

By the time your child is preschool age, they will be developing social skills through imaginative play, cooperative play and joint problem solving.

To reach the final stage of recognisable social play your child will go through 6 stages of play:

1. Unoccupied play

This is when your baby is learning how their body works and about the world around them by observing and making random physical movements.

2. Solitary play

The name is in the title here! This is when young children play alone with a toy and will not take any notice of what other children are doing around them.

3. Onlooker play 

This is when a child will watch what other children are doing and maybe even ask questions but they will not show any interest in joining in.

4. Parallel play

At this stage, children will play alongside other children. They will NOT interact directly, but they will closely observe and may mimic what other children are doing.

5. Associative play

Children will play together and may have a common goal and discuss how to achieve it. But it may be disorganised and a bit chaotic! 

6. Social (Cooperative) play

In this final stage, children will share ideas, establish and follow rules and be able to play games such as hide and seek or tag. You may also see team roles starting to develop.

6 Stages Of Play In Children Infographic

Why is social play important? The 6 Benefits of Social Play!

Social play is vitally important for your child’s emotional development and education. It teaches them how to get along with other children and how to behave within the social structure of the family in a kind and considerate way.

In fact, play in general is so important for your child's development! Check out 'The Importance Of Play In Child Development' post to learn more!

As humans, we rely on our social skills to survive and to have healthy and meaningful relationships with other people. Therefore, offering children the opportunity to engage in social play allows them to practice their social skill in a fun way and to develop essential life skills!

Children need a lot of practice to learn how to get along with others. Young children can try out different social skills through play and learn what works and what doesn't in a fun and safe way.

They will discover and experience what type of behaviour makes others upset and will be able to explore their own emotions in different social situations.

Social play will help to:

  • Build confidence
  • Develop emotional intelligence
  • Encourage teamwork
  • Introduce the concept of healthy competition
  • Explore feelings and emotions
  • Teach self discipline

Pretty great, right?! So, how can we encourage social play?

How do you encourage social play?

Well... as I mentioned before... Social play ACTUALLY starts from the day baby is born.

To begin with, YOU are the one that your little one will engage with socially

When you talk to them and make eye contact with them and they coo and smile back at you, you are engaging them on a social level and they will be getting a positive response to their interaction with you.  


How you interact with your child at this early age will affect their social development.

As your child grows, there are lots of activities that can encourage our children to develop social skills in a fun way. 

Children need adult support in order to learn the necessary social skills to function successfully in society, so we need to lead by example and show them the way.

Being socially adept does not come naturally or easily to toddlers. They are self centred, unable to know how to solve conflicts in a socially acceptable way and are not yet able to read other children’s emotions. (Share this article with the hashtag #T2TSelfishToddler if you agree!)

How you treat your child will have a huge impact on how they treat others. 

The best way to help your child on their social skills journey is to offer them opportunities where you can guide them and show them how to behave and then encourage them to model that behaviour.

Simply, the more social scenarios they experience the better!

  • Teach fairness by showing your toddler how to share and take turns
  • Model kind and positive behaviour
  • Provide opportunities for your toddler to play alongside other toddlers in associative play
  • Encourage role play and fancy dress games
  • Encourage joint activities with other children where they have to work together
  • Give them opportunities to spend time with other children at play groups or play dates with friends
  • Encourage them to use their imagination
  • Encourage joint problem solving 
  • Get your child used to obeying simple rules at home
  • Show them a wide range of emotions
  • Label and acknowledge your toddlers emotions to enable them to do so in others
  • Use books to teach social skills and the understanding of emotions

Remember… Milestone checklists are wonderful tools to help track your child's progress and IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO START USING ONE! Particularly for social development!!

Used in combination with age-appropriate activities and opportunities, your child will be flying along in no time!

Check out this article to learn more about Milestone Checklists and why I love them!

Or enter your email address below to get a FREE download straight to your Inbox! No spam, I promise! Just a useful and helpful milestone checklist!

get the FREE Milestone Checklist That Reveals The Hidden World Of Child Development Today!

Eliminate the worry that comes with your baby's development by keeping your child on track or catching potential delays early with key milestones from birth to preschool.

 All with expert advice from a prestigious Norland trained Nanny!

What are the best activities for social play?

There are loads of FANTASTIC ways to engage your child in social play. Here are a few of my favourites!

  • Play fancy dress 
  • Dance and play musical instruments together
  • Take your toddler to the park to play with others
  • Play games where you have to take turns such as 'Hide and Seek'
  • Play games that have simple rules like 'Musical Statues'
  • Get involved in imaginative and pretend play
  • Try joint problem solving games
  • Outdoor activities where you must work together as a team
  • Play listening games such as 'Simon Says'
  • Play ball games together
  • Visit the park so they learn to take turns and can observe other children

What are some examples of social development?

Your child will show different signs of social development and social skills depending on their age.

Up until they are 3 years of age, young children will learn most of their social skills from you and their families.

Your reaction to their developing behaviour and emotions will help them to develop the necessary social skills to later be kind, disciplined and considerate. At this age, they will observe other children but will NOT interact with them on a social level.

From age 3 to 4, however, their social skills will begin to develop in a very different way. At this age, they may become more bossy and defiant, be more independent and on the social side they should show signs of being able to:

  • Share toys and take turns
  • Start to engage in pretend play
  • Follow simple rules in games
  • Show an attachment to a particular friend

From the ages of 4-5 years of age, children begin to develop a stronger sense of self and start to recognise their own individuality. At this age they will very likely to:

  • Understand others feelings
  • Begin to develop friendships
  • Have a clear understanding of right and wrong
  • Listen more carefully to others
  • Compare themselves to others
  • Understand others feelings and emotions
  • Initiate and make up games with other children
  • Understand the concept of what is fair and what is not

What stage of social play is your little one at and how are their personalities developing? Are they confident, taking leadership or happy to follow? Are they content playing with you?


No matter where your little one is on their social development journey... know that it's an ever growing skill set that's been going on since birth!

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Also, if you're looking for products for your little one and you're not sure where to begin, be sure to check out my Parenting Toolbox. It is full of all my favourite products which I've tried to ensure are all non-toxic, eco friendly, sustainable and, of course, they’re all baby and toddler proof!

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Thank you for your continued support!

Teething to Tantrums Author

Paula McLaren is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and has been in the childcare industry as a Norland Nanny since 1982. Since then, her mission has been to help parents become the best they can possibly be. And each year, she continues to help more families understand their child's development, the trials and joys of parenting and of course, how to care for their little ones.

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