What is social play?
From the simplest romp and wrestling of young animals to the most jocular and complex banter of close friends, social play is a key aspect of play behavior.
The science of social play is complex, but can be studied selectively. The NIFP has a particular interest in early parent infant play, better understanding of the signals that herald and maintain social play,
Social play is play amongst peers. It often involves negotiating rules and working together, or in competition, to solve a problem, complete a task, or play in an imaginary world. This form of play often overlaps with other forms of play, such as imaginary play.
A fantastic example of how important negotiating rules is when playing together can be found in the episode of Bluey called “Shops”. (Currently available on Disney+, and sometimes on other services including BBC iPlayer.)
Social play and learning
Children can learn a huge amount from social play. Many of the learning areas are life-skills that take a long-term to fully develop, and which many adults struggle with. However they can be seen in development in quite young children.
When businesses put on away days and team-building activities they are often trying to create some of the conditions of social play. The skills and relationships it fosters are fundamental to collaboration and team work.
Children often choose rule based play when they need structure and predictability. They may opt for play according to preset rules, like board games, rather than imaginative forms at such times.
Social play suggestions
Games with rules
Playing ‘it’, stuck in the mud, what’s the time Mr Wolf and social skipping games are some of the many favourite ways that children learn social skills.
Having a wide range of board games both modern and traditional in an accessible place means that children can choose a more structured game if they feel inclined to this type of development.
Talk about rules
Why do rules matter? What happens when someone breaks a rule in a game? Does it still work? Is it fair? toddlers and children often have a very acute sense of fairness and unfairness.
Try changing some rules in games. Help them understand that rules help create the fun, but can sometimes limit the fun too.
Social play at different stages
Babies do not engage in social play…yet. They do play with others, but usually only adults, or older children who are more adept at picking up their communication and cues. Babies do not have the necessary understanding of others, nor the communication skills to engage in social play with peers.
Young toddlers rarely engage in social play. They often play alongside their peers, rather than engaging in a game with them. This may be less true for lose aged siblings who know each other very well. Social play tends to becomes better established in later toddlerhood, and the preschool years.
This form of play can be very challenging for young children. It requires complex communication, negotiation, adaptation, and impulse control around other children who may behave in ways another child cannot predict. Disputes are common when rules have been broken, or not well explained or understood.
Social play works best when all children involved choose it themselves, rather than at a parents suggestion. This reduces the explosive consequences that can arise when children who are tired or are poorly regulated at that time struggle with the requirements of this play. Just look again at the list of learning points above to remind yourself how complex this play can be!
Adults do lots of social play. Often it is part of their work, but the collaborative and experimental spirit can indeed mean work is play.
Think about bouncing ideas off each other in a meeting or chat, working through possible ways to solve a problem. Team sports, training together, or attending clubs, or classes also count. Many friendships use social play, which can be through conversations. For example, retelling something that happened to you, or a conflict situation, and through discussion understand things differently.