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Today's Family Magazine

Learning to play with others

By Dr. Colleen Russo Johnson

Watching your child play with others can be equally heartwarming and anxiety-provoking; we feel a swell of pride when they offer a toy to another child but cringe when they barrel through someone's carefully built tower!

Understandably, adults are often compelled to quickly intervene and "solve" the problem-–– however, if we pause and observe, we can empower children to reach resolutions on their own.  Children will probably need some adult scaffolding (just the right amount of help) to notice other's feelings and think of resolutions.  Even so, the more opportunities we give children to practice these skills (even if they might occur in cringe-worthy situations) the more children learn about social problem-solving and kindness.

Children learn about the rules of play (compromise, turn-taking, and having fun) with their caregivers first.  The give-and-take interactions of a dinner conversation and shared joy in one-on-one play support children's abilities to play cooperatively with others and build lasting friendships.

The transition from associative play to cooperative play

3–4 years

  • Children have typically moved from parallel play (playing near another person, but not with them) to associative play.  Associative play looks more social –– children in this stage interact with other peers in the same area around a similar activity, but are working towards different goals and not necessarily coordinating with each other.  For example, two children may be sharing space and utensils while cooking in a pretend kitchen and talking to each other, but have a different focus.
  • Children will need more grown-up support at this stage for sharing materials and managing social conflicts.

4-5 years

  • Play shifts from associative to cooperative, which involves a more coordinated social approach.  Children in this stage talk to each other, begin problem-solving, and work together towards a common goal.  In the play kitchen example, this could look like children discussing who will be the cook and who will be the dishwasher, making a plan for the meal, and carrying out the plan together.
  • Children advocate for themselves and their ideas in play with others.  Play is a push and pull process –– children are still working to balance assertiveness and flexibility.
  • Children begin learning social problem-solving skills through conflict.  Although conflict is often uncomfortable, it presents great opportunities for children to work together to communicate and solve a problem.

5-6 years

  • Cooperative play can become lengthier and extended throughout different days and contexts.  Kids are able to pick up where they left off and either keep going or agree to change course.
  • Children verbally communicate the connection between their feelings and actions when solving a problem with another person.  For example, “I am mad!  You keep moving my blocks.   The tower is supposed to stay here.”
  • Coordinated play within a larger group starts to emerge: AKA teamwork!

Supporting cooperative play at home

  • Engage in cooperative play!  Obvious, right?  Play soccer in the backyard with predetermined rules, play a board game, or work together to construct a castle with blocks.
  • Support difficult emotions.  When conflicts (inevitably arise) support your child's emotion regulation by offering comfort or talking through it.  Children's abilities to regulate their emotions are strongly related to social competence and parental emotional support is important to build this skill.
  • Practice patience.  Practice makes perfect, but it's not always easy! When giving your child space to problem solve with another child it might take some patience and deep breaths.
  • Help recognize emotions.  Children might need to be nudged to notice that their playmate is looking disappointed or frustrated while in the thick of play.  Emotion recognition helps children understand that others have different feelings than their own.
  • Have fun.  This is an easy one that you are already familiar with, have fun with play: openly express joy, laughter, and be silly!  Not only does it feel amazing, it also helps foster children's love for play and for building lasting friendships.

Dr. Colleen Russo Johnson is a nationally recognized developmental psychologist with an expertise in children's media and technology and the cofounder of OK Play, an app built for families to create, bond and grow together every day through play (available on iOS or Android). She holds a PhD from Vanderbilt University.


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