Social skills describe the behaviours and communication skills that a person uses to successfully interact and connect with other people. Friendships require a mutual exchange of give and take. Learning to share games, toys, experiences, feelings and time for each other forms the foundations of friendships in childhood. In the early years of development, children learn social skills through play. The ability to use language and non-verbal communication skills, such as eye contact, facial expression and body language are important for effective conversational skills. Knowing how to interpret and respond to the thoughts and feelings of others is also essential for developing lasting relationships with others.
How do play and social skills develop?
Social skills begin developing from birth, as your baby experiences connection and pleasure from interactions with you. Your baby learns to take turns and engage in back and forth circles of communication as you observe and copy each others facial expressions, gestures and noises. As your child grows, their relationship needs and skills mature and change. Your toddler will begin learning the joys of playing people games and singing songs and nursery rhymes together. Parallel play with other children will emerge at this age, as your child begins to enjoy playing along side other children. They will play with the same toys and show a keen interest in their friend’s play, but will usually prefer to play independently with their own toys.
Pretend play is also an important stage of development during this time. Your child will begin to use ‘pretending’ in their play by acting out simple, everyday actions that adults do such as talking on a toy phone, or feeding their doll. By 2 years of age, they will begin playing with dolls as if they are real by feeding them, putting them to bed and giving them roles to play. Your child may also be enjoying pretending to play different roles themselves like pretending to drive a car, or be a baby and go to sleep.
As your child approaches 3 years of age, they will begin to learn the importance of sharing and turn taking. They start to use their words for purposes such as requesting toys, asking for a turn, suggesting or rejecting ideas, and directing play. Their play will become increasingly more imaginative and flexible as they learn to use objects for different purposes, such as using a shoe as a phone or a boat. By 3 years old, children will be able to take on many roles in play and will act out simple stories such as tea parties, dinosaur battles and fairy castles.
By the age of 3 years, your child will learn to play associatively with their peers. They will begin to discuss and agree on loosely organised games such as running around the playground, pretending to be superheros. Play will involve imagination and sharing of ideas, but will not yet include definite rules or character roles. They will begin to use language to talk about their own actions, direct other people and discuss their ideas. They will become increasingly interested in playing with other children their own age and will begin to form close friendships with other children who share common interests.
As your child enters kindergarten, their ability to invite other children into their play and play successfully for long periods of time will mature. Pretend play will involve more imaginative and elaborate story telling (called ‘play scripts’) that may not be within your child’s direct experience, such as building rocket ships and flying to the moon. Toys and characters in play will be given a voice and will engage in logically sequenced actions and events that have a clear ending or goal.
Appropriate development of play and social skills is important for a child to develop before they commence prep. By the age of 5 years, true cooperative play emerges. Play sequences become elaborate, organised and logical. Play scripts begin to involve problem situations, such as the princess getting stuck high in the castle and needing to be rescued.
Through play, your child begins practising using language to direct, negotiate, predict and problem solve with their peers. They will learn how to consider the thoughts and feelings of other people as they quite literally put themselves in another person’s shoes during role play. Pretend play is therefore important for the development of social skills, problem solving and critical thinking skills, the understanding of emotions and behaviour, and for developing empathy and perspective taking.
The school-aged child
As your child progresses through primary school, the friendships they form will become increasingly important and meaningful. They will learn how to take other people’s feelings and viewpoints into account, and will learn how to help and look after one another. Your child may enjoy playing competitive games and sports that often require them to work in a team. Through doing so, children learn to accept and adhere to rules, and learn the importance of ‘playing fair’. Friendship groups at school may begin to form as your child forms increasingly strong bonds with other children who share the same interests.
Conversational skills become increasingly important as your child enjoys sharing their stories, experiences, jokes, ideas, thoughts and feelings with each other. Understanding how to take turns and talk about a range of topics that interest their conversational partner will support positive social interactions. The ability to use appropriate non-verbal communication such as eye contact, facial expression, body language and tone of voice will help your child to express their thoughts, ideas and feelings appropriately. Understanding other people’s non-verbal communication and recognising how other people think and feel in different situations is also important for allowing your child to use their communication skills to build friendships and relationships with others.
As your child progress through primary school and into high school, the way they connect and build relationships with their peers matures and changes. Your teenager will spend less time playing gross-motor sports at lunch time, and will spend more time sitting and chatting with their friends. Friendship groups become an important part of your teenagers life as their independence, self identify and self confidence develops and matures.
Teenagers will share stories about their lives and will use language to make information interesting and colourful for their listeners. The language they use becomes more advanced as the use of figurative/non-literal language, jokes, sarcasm, and metaphors is introduced. In conversations, your teenager will talk about topics that interest different people and will learn to take turns and ask questions in order to keep the conversation going.
How can Speech Pathology help?
Speech Pathologists are experts in communication – including social communication! If your child or adolescent experiences difficulties with making friends or playing appropriately, a Speech Pathologist will identify the skills that are difficult for your child and provide therapy to improve these areas. For younger children who experience difficulties playing appropriately with other children, a Speech Pathologist can help them learn new play skills such as pretending, negotiating, turn taking, sharing and waiting. Learn and Grow Speech Pathologists can visit your child’s daycare or kindergarten to provide therapy in the playground. This will help your child learn how to transfer their new skills into successful and enjoyable play with their friends!
Therapy for school aged children and adolescents can develop the ability to use appropriate non-verbal communication such as using eye contact and body language, not standing too close or too far, and using an appropriate speaking volume. Some young people will also benefit from therapy to help them interpret other people’s facial expressions, body language and feelings. Therapy can build conversational skills by teaching the ability to start or end conversations, talk about different topics, take turns, ask questions and keep the conversation going. For older children and adolescents, learning to understand non-literal language and sarcasm, and learning how to tell interesting jokes and stories can help them build confidence and experience success within their peer groups. Social skills therapy is best done through a combination of individual and group therapy. Learn and Grow run social skills groups for young people aged 9 – 12 years and 13 – 15 years. Please contact our Speech Pathologists for more information about group schedules.