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Debbie Woodliffe is an experienced writer currently working for Affinity Agency based in the UK. Her main goal is to help others learn and develop through her writing.
After a year of reduced social contact, it’s fair to say our collective socializing skills have taken a bit of a dive, but for kids, it’s possibly even worse. Social play in early childhood is essential for learning all about friendships and how to act around others, but a good portion of young children may have entirely missed out on that this past year. To help, here are a few ways you can gently introduce socializing and social play into your kid’s lives:
- Work on their eye contact
- Encourage emotional learning
- Get out and about
Read on to see how social distancing doesn’t have to have a lasting impact on your little ones.
Now that most restrictions are easing, crowds are getting bigger, and we’re coming into close contact with far more people than we have in the eighteen months. For those of us who remember what the pre-pandemic life was like, it’s a bit of an adjustment, but we have the skills buried within us to handle it. However, young children who have yet to work and play with others haven’t had the chance to learn and develop their own coping techniques and essential skills. So, they might need some help.
That’s where you come in. So, let’s take at how to improve social skills in children and what parents and guardians can do to support their growth:
Work on their Eye Contact
Eye contact can be difficult for many of us to maintain. But, whether we’re shy, socially awkward or not, eye contact is an integral part of communication with others. It tells people that we’re listening, that we are engaged and that they are important to us. So, when preparing young children for the big wide world, it’s a good idea to get them used to it.
There are several ways you can do this, but here are a few easy ones for you to start with:
- Have staring contests – this helps them get familiar with looking people in the eye on purpose without any expectations. Plus, it’s a fun game (especially if there’s a prize for the winner).
- Prompt them to look in your eyes – saying things like ‘Look over here’ or ‘Could you tell my eyes?”, even ‘Show me your beautiful eyes’ will make the action more comfortable and commonplace for them.
- Positive reinforcement – rewarding or encouraging them when they voluntarily look at your eyes helps too. Phrases like ‘What pretty eyes you have’ or thanking them for looking directly at you are great for encouragement. So is smiling and nodding when they meet your eyes. It’s all about positivity.
- Playing board games – these kinds of tabletop games require you to be at the same eye level for comfort and fairness. As a result, eye contact is almost a given as you try to guess what the other is doing and get into the game.
Encourage Emotional Learning
Being social and making friends is a great life skill to have, but you need to understand the range of emotions you feel and how others feel to be successful. Empathy, compassion, and caring are all things that most people learn in school, where social play is rife, but it’s pretty clear that younger children have experienced something a little different in the last year or so. To help them learn to care and be considerate of others, you should teach them about emotions and healthy expressions:
- Let them feel – allowing them to be their true selves and explore their own emotions will help them understand and accept those feelings in themselves and others. It also helps you to validate these emotions and talk to them about why they feel that way to allow them to recognize their moods in the future.
- Play the emotions game – this is where you each try to guess what emotion the other is acting out through facial expressions and actions. For example, try exaggerated furrowed brows and big bottom lips for anger and sadness, or wide eyes and mouths for amazement and shock. It’s a fun exercise and helps them learn to recognize emotions in others.
- Communicate how you feel – don’t be afraid to tell them when you’re happy or sad or annoyed or tired, and show them what self-care you do to help you feel better. It will help validate their feelings and make the emotions seem normal. As a bonus, they’ll also learn to cope when they feel like that by following your lead.
- Teach them about caring – this could be by reading a book or showing them how you care for others or a pet. If they’ve got friends or siblings, teach them how to help by giving them an example to follow.
Get Out and About
A child’s environment greatly influences their emotions, development, and well-being, and being relatively isolated for over a year has more than likely restricted that growth. So, getting them out and about into new places and environments can only help encourage their child development.
Doing this will allow them to interact with the world and any other people at their own pace. In addition, they will use the things you have taught them to begin their social interactions more confidently.
Here are a few places and environments you could start with and some examples of social play activities:
- The play park – all the equipment and activities at the local playground are carefully constructed to be both fun and aid development.
- After-school groups – art classes and music or dance lessons are excellent for developing their creativity and encouraging social development.
- Playschool – Nurseries and preschools are the ideal places to begin their social development for those too young for school.
These kinds of play and learning activities greatly benefit a child’s development and boost their social skills. So, no matter if they are natural socializers or not – bringing a few of these ideas and activities into their lives will help prepare them for the crowds and new people they’re going to meet over the coming months. Socialising doesn’t have to be anxiety-inducing – with your help, they can feel more confident when meeting new people and making new friends.
You might also be interested in: Understanding Child Development Stages [Parenting Guide]