Summer is coming, and we are excited to get out and play at the park. Depending on the social and emotional skills of the children playing, some interactions at the park can be fun and fulfilling, and others can be daunting. Friendship and getting along with others are skills that children learn by watching their parents and caregivers.
“Monkey see, monkey do” is an old saying proven true by the latest neurobiological research, which shows we have brain cells called mirror neurons that are responsible for the behavior-mirroring effect. Children’s perceptions are wired in their brains by how they interpret what they see and experience. The younger the child, the more that child learns by watching others.
Playing is how children make sense of their world and practice new ideas. Children’s play consists of themes about observations and experiences in their lives that get wired into skills that shape how they act. If you ever watch preschoolers playing house and listen to the conversation, you’ll notice they aren’t discussing what their parents told them to do or what they have learned through conversations; they are playing out what they see their parents doing and saying.
“Do as I say and not as I do” does not apply to young children. Next time you go to the park, don’t just stand back and watch. Play with your child. It gives you a chance to teach and practice social skills in real time.
■ Joining in play: Introduce yourself to children and adults and interact with them if they are open to it. Example: Say hello and introduce yourself, then ask them if they want to play.
■ Organizing play: Teach your child how to organize play by modeling giving play ideas and making suggestions for what to do next. Example: “Hey, do you want to play with me? Let’s play trucks. I will put the log onto the back, and you dump it.”
■ Taking turns: Teach your child about taking turns by walking him or her through the steps and providing guidance as he or she learns the concept. Example: One person down the slide at a time. She goes first, then you are next.
■ Sharing: As you play with your child, be authentic. Don’t always let your child come up with play ideas, and don’t allow your child to have everything he or she wants. Example: There’s one shovel. You have it, and your child wants it. Introduce sharing by identifying the problem and a response. How could you share? Take turns, ask please or use it together.
■ Giving compliments: Giving compliments has a powerful effect on forming and building friendships. It also can form the foundation for teamwork as children learn how to acknowledge contributions of others. Example: Compliment your child and other children on the friendship skills they are using, “That was so nice of you to share!” or “I like your pink shirt.”
Above all, catch your child being a good friend, and point out the skills he or she is using with specific and deserved praise. Example: “Wow, you were a really good friend and took turns with the shovel!” This not only will build your child’s self-esteem, it also will encourage your child to continue using the skills he or she is learning.
Sophie Berkley is the owner of Growing Potential, which promotes social and emotional development through counseling, play therapy, consultation, and parent and teacher coaching. She is a member of First Impressions of Routt County and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-819-6751.