How to Motivate Social Play in Toddlers

Girl playing with dolls in front of dollhouse

We all want our toddlers to grow up with great friends! So much so that we may be tempted to obsess over childhood social milestones and panic if our toddlers seem uninterested in social play. But you might be surprised to learn that social play in toddlers can look totally different than we expect! In this post, we’re diving into what social play is, the different types of social play, and how you can encourage social play in your toddlers!

What Is Social Play?

No surprises here. Social play is exactly what it sounds like – playing with others. Usually, when professionals use the term, they’re referring to social play with peers, i.e. kids playing with other kids. But social play can also encompass kids playing with parents or other adults. The earliest forms of social play begin in infancy as parents speak to their babies, make them laugh, and play simple games like peek-a-boo. Social play with peers starts later and usually develops in the following stages:

Types of Social Play

Sociologist Mildred Parten theorized that kids go through several stages of play before they are ready to engage in what we typically think of as social play.

Onlooker play is most common around ages 2 and 3 and occurs when kids simply observe other kids playing but don’t join in. Though it may seem like they’re not doing much, they’re actually soaking in a ton of information on social norms and how older kids play together.

Parallel play is also common around ages 2 and 3. In this case kids are playing near each other, often doing similar activities, but aren’t really playing with each other yet.

Associative play is similar to parallel play but with a little more social interaction as kids may talk to each other and influence each other’s activities (like making suggestions for their block tower or trying to copy a friend’s drawing). This type of play is most common between ages 3 and 4.

Cooperative play is what we’re likely thinking of when we picture traditional “social play.” Kids are truly playing with each other, not just near each other, and are interacting and communicating. This type of play can begin around age 3 and emerges as kids’ favorite way to interact with their peers around age 4 to 5

A major takeaway for parents is to recognize that young toddlers’ social play may not look exactly how we expect. If your 18-month-old seems to ignore her playdate buddies or your 2-year-old stares at kids on the playground instead of playing, know that these are actually early stages of social play! Learn more about these and other stages of play in our post, Stages of Play: How Kids Should Play by Age.

Play with Adults

In addition to these stages of play with peers, there’s another type of social play that can’t be ignored: playing with adults! Toddlers’ interactions with their parents and other caregivers are just as – if not more – critical for their social development as peer interactions. When you play with your toddler and give them your focus, you instill a sense of self worth, develop their language skills, and model how they should interact socially.

Why Is Social Play Important?

We’ve hinted at it already, but social play is so critical because it’s the primary way kids develop social skills that will help them be successful later in life. Through social play kids develop emotional intelligence and empathy, learn to pick up on social cues, and learn to communicate ideas and feelings.

How to Motivate Social Play

If you’re here, we’re guessing it’s because you want to teach your toddler how to play with others. That’s definitely a worthwhile goal! Just remember that social play comes with time. Young toddlers will engage more in onlooker and parallel play, and that’s okay! When kids do begin to attempt cooperative play with their peers, expect some tantrums and tears as they do the tough work of learning to share and communicate. Shy children or very strong-willed children may have a tougher time engaging at first, but with practice and some gentle coaching from you, they’ll get there!

All that being said, these are a few simple ways you can help motivate your child to engage in social play:

Play with Them!

Playing with your toddler is one of the most critical things you can do to get them ready for social play. Playing and reading together gives kids the confidence and language skills they need to interact with their peers. They’ll also learn appropriate social behavior as you gently correct and redirect inappropriate behaviors.

Hit the Park

Parks are a great place to begin meeting peers and practicing social interactions. Young or shy toddlers can learn from onlooker play as they watch the other kids. For kids who are interested in more cooperative play, parks are a great way to practice introductions and initiating play with new friends.

Host a Playdate (and Join In)

Many kids feel most comfortable on their own turf and might be more likely to engage in social play at home. For some kids, simply being around other kids is enough to kick off social play. For others, a parent’s presence can help them feel more confident. If your child needs it, you and the other parents can join in on the play until your child feels ready to play with their friends on their own.

Try a Mix of Familiar & New Activities

Just as some kids feel more confident playing in their own home, some will feel confident exploring social play through familiar activities they already do at home. On the other hand, the novelty of new, exciting activities and toys can also encourage reluctant kids to join in on the fun! Organized sports, library craft times, a visit to a friends’ house, or new developmental toys can all be new exposures that get them excited for social play.

For more ways to help your toddler’s budding social skills, check out our 7 Sharing Activities for Toddlers and tips to Grow Your Toddler’s Emotional Intelligence.