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Playgrounds & Social Skills for Toddlers and Preschoolers

Playgrounds have been my lifesaver as a new parent. They are just such a great way to have a play date without having to clean your house or spend any money! We’ve been taking B to them since she started crawling. But most importantly I love playgrounds for the language and social skills learning opportunities they allow. Below I will break down expectations and a few ways to encourage language and social skill development by Age with Play Stage (not sure what this is? Read more about it HERE).

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

1-2 YEAR OLDS

Up to age 2-2 1/2 your child is in the solitary play stage. This means they really only play by themselves and are relatively unaware of others.


3 Ways to Use the Playground:

  • Teach the Vocabulary- objects AND verbs!
  • Call attention to peers doing the same thing (Look! She’s swinging just like you)
  • Model joining YOUR CHILD in play (e.g. “I want to slide with you!” Or “Can we play Hide and Seek?”)

At the end of this stage you want them to have the vocabulary of the playground AND the confidence to do most of the playground equipment independently. You’ve also spent a lot of time “pre-teaching” words to use with peers to initiate/join in play and share toys.

Is your child just beginning to talk? Check out my post on backyard/playground vocabulary activity ideas!

3 YEAR OLDS

Around the age of 2 1/2-3 you will likely notice your child beginning to play next to other children in the same activity. On the playground this often shows up as running with the other kids in a game of chase (although the other kids may have no idea your child is playing with them!) or wanting to swing the same way as the child in the next swing.

3 Ways to Use the Playground to Support:

◦ Pay attention to what their observing and narrate- include ways they could ask to join in on the fun

◦ Step back and watch- remember you’re not expecting them to play with the other kids. It will be more like your child copying them. Allowing them to explore on their own increases the likelihood of them venturing to other kids.

◦ Facilitate turn taking and problem solving when needed. Use consistent, age appropriate vocabulary to help them practice speaking up for themselves (“my turn” “I need a break”, “Can I go next?”, etc.)

4 YEAR OLDS

Your child will enter the final play stage by the time they turn 5. Around 3 1/2-4 they with start sharing and taking about play. And by ~4 1/2 they will actually be able to truly play with other children while having the same goal. This may look like the playground being a lava field or all of the kids running around pretending to be chasing pirates, etc.!

3 Ways to Use the Playground Support:

◦ Facilitate playground games like Tag, Hide n’ Seek, Red Light Green Light or model pretend play.

◦ Verbalize the “play plan” they are doing. If they go and do their own thing after a few min encourage them to join their friend again or ask the friend to join them.

◦ Give them room/time to problem solve before jumping in to their rescue! Remember you spent the year before modeling and teaching them the vocabulary and problems solving skills needed to start playing with peers.

Playgrounds truly are one of the best ways to teach the foundational skills to build friendships. Take advantage of the free, kid-filled space to build on their joint attention, vocabulary, turn taking skills, play/conversation initiation and maintenance, problem solving skills, and simple perspective taking.

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