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Children Aren’t Born With Fantastic Social Skills

We must support kids as they learn to play nicely and get along with their peers

  • Children Aren’t Born With Fantastic Social Skills

One of the most important sets of behaviours that children learn in early years settings concerns socialising, sharing and working in a group.

As tiny babies, the world revolved around them and their immediate needs – if they were hungry, they cried until they were fed; if they were tired, they fell asleep, whether or not it was nap-time. But as they grow up, children must learn that other people’s needs and wishes matter as well. They must discover how to become sociable beings and empathise with other people, and learn the patience to wait their turn.

The scenario

Recently you have noticed more incidents of children getting into quarrels with each other. A number of toys have been damaged because children were arguing over whose turn it was to play with them. There are several children who find it hard to play cooperatively, and who ‘set each other off’ when they play together. There are some children who don’t want to play with their peers at all. You want to find ways to boost all the children’s social skills.

Individual support

Some children find it easy to socialise in large groups and are confident about playing with their peers – perhaps they have lots of older siblings, or an extended family, so are used to being in social situations. Other children struggle to settle into a group setting and it may take them a while to separate from parents. The key person approach is very useful for helping children start to socialise, because it allows them to develop a secure attachment to a practitioner. The key person can help the child build social skills, and learn how to play with others, by supporting and modelling the process for them.

Resolving conflicts

Play is crucial for early socialisation. Through play, children learn how to share ideas, take turns, listen to others and resolve conflicts. It allows them to develop the language of cooperation and negotiation – asking questions, following instructions, and giving commands. When you see children involved in a conflict, it is tempting to step in immediately to resolve things for them. But what looks like a quarrel can actually be a useful opportunity for the children to learn…

• Unless someone is being hurt, or is being unacceptably aggressive, take a moment to observe what is going on. Give the children a chance to resolve things themselves.

• If you feel the need to step in, get down on the children’s level and make a suggestion (“What would happen if we…?”) rather than a command (“Give me that toy now…”). Encourage the children to settle their own disputes by modelling the process for them.

• Consider whether the layout or resources in your setting are contributing to conflicts. Are there enough quiet spaces for children to have some calm times?

• Ensure children have sufficient outlets for their energy, with plenty of physical activities available and free flow between indoors and outdoors if at all possible.

• Conflicts are more likely to happen when children are tired, hungry, under-stimulated or overexcited. Take steps to preempt these issues, such as having a regular snack-time or reading a story to the whole group, when you know they will be tired.


Like any skill, group work and cooperation takes practice, and the more we do it, the better we get at it. Use specific activities that encourage cooperation and teach children the skills they need to work together.

• Get the children cooperating by finding tasks they can work on together – for instance, cutting up the fruit and cheese for snack-time.

• Praise cooperative play when you see it, and give responsibility to those children who show they can work well within a team.

• Set up role plays where the children must work together to achieve success – for instance, they could play as firefighters putting out a fire.

• Create group situations where the children can practise social skills. At our setting we value our whole-group snack-time as a time when everyone sits and eats together.

• Use sports activities that rely on cooperation, such as parachute games or team challenges.

• Remember that the children learn from the example adults set, so model a cooperative approach within your staff team.

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