It's never too early to start teaching your children social skills . As your little one grows, they need to be able to express their thoughts and emotions with confidence, while showing respect and empathy for friends and others in their world.
Because play is the primary way children receive and process information, games that introduce and model social concepts are wonderful ways to introduce social skills and cues. This kind of play doesn't just teach good manners, it encourages emotional intelligence in children of every developmental stage.
Here are 7 fun activities that help toddlers + preschoolers develop their social skills.
Game: My Turn
Best for: Toddlers aged 12-24 months
Social-emotional skills + concepts: Sharing , along with saying "Please" and "Thank you"
Materials needed: Any household object your child likes—a toy or blanket, or something "grown-up" your child likes to hold, like your phone or the remote.
Process: Say to your child "My turn please" with your hand placed out in front, ready to receive the object. Gently guide your child's hand to place the object into your hand, providing positive praise and a "Thank you" as soon as they do. Then, say "Your turn" and hand them back the object. Practice it a few times. This can be done throughout the day with any item. Don't forget to always say "Please" and "Thank you."
Game: Mimic Emotions
Best for: Ages 12 months+
Social-emotional skills + concepts: Recognizing and naming different types of emotions , as well as empathy.
Process: Cover your face with your palms; remove your hands from your face, and make a face that expresses an emotion: happiness, sadness, confusion, worry, anger. Encourage your child to mimic the emotions you are making. Make sure to describe the emotion to help build their vocabulary words.
As your child gets older, you can show them how to offer comfort when the emotion is not happy. For example, when you show your child a sad face, guide them into giving you a hug, and saying, "everything will be okay." Make sure to provide the same empathy when your child is expressing those feelings themselves.
Game: Feelings Hop
Best for: Age 2+
Social-emotional skills + concepts: Identifying what feelings look like, what causes certain feelings and even what to do about them.
Materials needed: Create large print outs of faces making different emotions and tape them to the floor.
Process: Call out a feeling—"frustration!" or "joy!"—and encourage your child to hop to the face that shows that feeling. Once they are standing on the feeling card, encourage them to make the face, and explain why a person might feel that way: "Sometimes we get frustrated when we have to wait." Take the game to the next level by asking the child how they can help a friend who may be feeling this emotion. Play until all feelings are identified.
Game: Working Together
Best for: Age 2+
Social-emotional skills + concepts: Turn-taking and patience, as well as working together. In addition, this game helps with identifying colors and shapes.
Materials needed: A set of blocks and a set of index cards with images that match the colors and the shapes of the blocks.
Process: You and your child take turns drawing a card and finding the matching block. Then, work together to build a tower based on the cards that are drawn. See how high the tower can go. If it falls over, it's okay—just try again!
Game: Listening Course
Best for: Age 2.5+
Social-emotional skills + concepts: Listening skills.
Materials needed: Pillows, stuffed animals, hula-hoops and other toys and items from around the house that you can use to set up an obstacle course.
Process: Encourage your child to listen to your directions as they move through an obstacle course or maze you both create. For example, you can say: "Jump into the hula-hoop and then step out of the hula-hoop, turn right and step over the teddy bear." Change up the obstacle course to enhance listening skills.
Game: Animal Play
Best for: Age 2.5+
Social-emotional skills + concepts: Turn-taking, listening and manners.
Materials needed: Your child's favorite stuffed animals or toys
Process: Playing with stuffies may not be your favorite game with your little one—in fact many parents of toddlers and preschoolers come to dread "stuffie time." But stuffed animal play is a great opportunity to model manners, friendship and the natural back-and-forth of conversation for your child.
Ask a question (such as, "What do you think is the best season, and why?") and let every stuffed animal in the circle offer their answer. Or let a stuffed animal "introduce" your child to all the other stuffed animals in the circle, demonstrating how to make sure everyone feels included.
You can also introduce the idea of finding solutions for problems through stuffed animal play: Perhaps one stuffed animal is always interrupting others when they try to speak. How can the other stuffies express their feelings about being interrupted, and how can the animal work on improving their conversation skills so everyone gets a turn?
Naming and acting on emotions is another way to use "stuffie time" to teach social skills. What should the cow (or the bunny, or the turtle or bear) do when they feel angry? Allow the stuffed animals to provide solutions to help your child learn how to appropriately express their wants and needs.
Game: Silly Conversations
Best for: Age 3+
Social-emotional skills + concepts: Listening and engaging in conversations
Process: Give your child the opportunity to pick a silly or imaginative topic of conversation and to ask questions—and no matter how wild the question, both of you get to come up with an answer. If they need help, start the conversation with a question like, "Would you rather fly like a bird or swim like a fish?" Then encourage them to verbalize their answer. Allow them to be silly while still engaging with the question.
You can demonstrate how to continue a conversation by adding "also" statements such as, "I would also have long blue wings to fly." This keeps the conversation open-ended while encouraging further exploration of the subject.
There are a lot of fun activities to do with your child to build on social skills. As they continue to grow, their social skills will grow as well. Add social-emotional play into their daily routines and have fun with it!