Tag Archives: play

Social Skills After Quarantine

In 2021, as we are beginning to come out of the isolation of COVID-19, parents may feel a special urgency to make up for lost time on social development. Learning about developmentally normal stages of social development can help you to prioritize what support your child needs and how to help them make connections.

Making Up for Lost Time

Early childhood is prime time for learning social skills. For children that were socially isolated during those years due to coronavirus, parents may worry that their child’s social skills will be irreparably damaged. But children are so resilient – when social play opportunities open up, they’ll catch up!

First, remember – your child has been practicing social skills! Even if it was just one child and one adult living together, there was plenty of opportunity to practice talking and listening, taking turns, playing together, and conflict resolution. (If there were additional people or animals in the mix, even better.) If you want to evaluate whether they’re on track with social skills, check out this checklist of play skills (or this one) that children typically develop at each age – you may discover they are right where they should be developmentally. If they haven’t yet mastered some of the typical skills, the checklist will give you a sense of what to work on.

Learn what’s normal / what’s next:

It’s helpful to know what we’d typically expect at each age for children so as they start to play together, you can watch for these skills. It’s also helpful to know what’s next in typical development, so you can foster opportunities for learning.

Infants – if your baby was home with only you during the first few months, that’s fine! A young baby can get all the social cues and interaction they need from just one or two caring adults. Just practice serve-and-return interactions, where your baby smiles at you and you smile back. Your baby coos and you coo back. (Learn more.) And learn about infant cues to guide your responses. If your baby has the opportunity to interact with additional adults or older children, they will likely happily engage with anyone.

Older Babies. From 6 – 12 months, your baby learns to play more interactively with you and will likely enjoy peek-a-boo, copying your actions, clapping with you, passing toys back and forth, and finding toys you have hidden. Some babies may play happily with all they encounter. However, it is important to know that even in normal times, many infants develop a fear of strangers at around 7 to 8 months, so interacting with other people in person prior to that may help to reduce that. If you’re just introducing your child to other people at this age, reassure yourself that stranger fear is developmentally normal, not just a product of coronavirus quarantine… they will outgrow it just as all babies have always outgrown it. Here are tips on reducing separation anxiety. And more tips.)

Young Toddlers – up to 2 years. Before 18 – 24 months, children primarily engage in solitary play, where they engage with toys, but often appear uninterested or unaware of other children. So, if your child was in isolation during this period, don’t worry about it! If you bring them back into connection with other kids during this period, know that it’s normal for them to not really engage much. They do engage with adults or older children more effectively than they do with peers, so if you’re choosing only one COVID playmate to help build your toddler’s social skills, 71 year old grandma or 17 year old babysitter may be as good a match as a 17 month old buddy. To build social skills, try Floortime play, which begins with child-led play, then “stretches” the play to be more interactive and turn-taking.

Onlookers: Around 2 years old, they begin to shift to spectator play, where they may begin observing other children more. This is a great time to take them to public parks where they can watch other children at play, up close or from afar.

Older Toddlers – 2+ years. Children begin to engage in parallel play. They will play next to each other, often mimicking what the other child is doing. They may not often engage in reciprocal back-and-forth play with a peer, but they are learning from each other. If your child was isolated during this stage, they almost certainly did parallel play with you. If you’re re-integrating them into social play at this age, they can do fine one-on-one or in groups, with familiar kids or with children they’ve just met.

“Stealing” toys is very common at this age. They are not intentionally trying to deprive the other child of something… it’s just that they noticed what the other child was doing and they want to do it now. One of the most effective ways to handle this issue is distraction – let the child who seems more focused on the contested toy keep it, and distract the other child with a new toy. That will work better, and is more developmentally appropriate than telling children to share.

Three Year Olds. Around age 3, children begin to do more associate play. They start to interact more with each other, trading toys, copying each other, or “inviting” the other child to participate in what they are doing. They become more interested in the other child than in the toy. They may work together on a goal – like building with blocks, but there aren’t usually “rules” to the game. They can learn social skills by playing with adults or with older children, but it’s great if they can have peer interaction at this age. It does not have to be in a large group pre-school. One-on-one or a few children at a time is fine. It may be tempting to enroll in classes as your primary place to connect with other kids, but if your main goal is social skills, it is easier for children to learn those in settings that allow lots of free play (a playground, playdates with other families, a play-based preschool, or a family size child care setting) than in a structured class (like a gymnastics or soccer class where the teacher is trying to keep them on task.)

Check out the “skills to practice at home” section below.

Four and Five Year Olds. At this age, they have moved into true cooperative play. They share toys, they share ideas, they create “rules” or agree on which role each one will play in a pretend game, and work together toward goals. They start learning more about cooperation, compromise, and fair turn-taking. Whereas at younger ages, it’s fine to have your child play with lots of different kids, this is an important age for children to have a few consistent buddies to play with repeatedly, to build friendship skills. If they are enrolled in a group setting, like preschool or extracurricular classes, look for children there that they most connect with, and try setting up playdates with that family to give them more opportunity to connect. Or, if you’re still limiting exposures to other kids, find just one to three families for a low COVID risk playgroup. Check out “skills to practice at home” below, and my post on “Teaching Friendship Skills.”

Reducing Coronavirus Risk

Every parent has to make their own calculations, but here are some things to consider.

  • If the number of vaccinated people in your community is high, and the number of current cases are low, there is less risk of community transmission than when there are fewer vaccinated folks and case numbers are growing.
  • The risk of transmission in outdoor, socially distanced settings is lower. The risk at indoors, poorly ventilated, non-distanced settings is higher.
  • If the parents at the playdate are vaccinated and wear masks, the risk is lower.
  • If children (over age 2) wear masks, the risk is lower.
  • Fewer people involved means fewer exposure risks.
  • You can plan activities that make it easier for children to stay distanced, or provide supports to help them remember to be distanced (like hula hoops or sit-upons to mark places to sit.) Teach them to wave hello rather than hugging or high fiving. Have them wash hands before and after play. Save snacks for after the gathering.

Skills to Practice at Home

You can boost their social skills by practicing in advance of playdates. Do lots of pretend play, puppet shows and role plays, and talk about the social and emotional experiences of characters in stories that you are reading.

When teaching about emotions, I have always taught children to recognize how facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice all communicate emotion, but especially when masks cover up much of our facial expressions, the other non-verbal cues are especially important to teach.

Practice give-and-take conversations, where you take turns fairly, don’t interrupt each other, and ask the other person questions about what they said rather than always just telling them things. Role model social skills by how you interact with friends, family and people in the community.

Introduce the ideas of taking turns. Play side by side with your child, and occasionally ask: ‘can I play with that toy now?’ Or say ‘you can have that toy for one more minute and then it’s my turn.’ If they try to take a toy from you, say ‘I’m playing with it now. You can have it in a minute. Here’s another toy you can play with now.’ Don’t expect 2 – 3 year olds to be good at sharing and taking turns! It’s a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, and they just have to reach a stage of development where they can empathize with another child’s feelings. But practicing at home gives them a chance to build trust in the idea that if they let you have your turn that you will give it back when it’s their turn.

If your child seems shy or withdrawn, don’t assume it’s because of COVID. It could just be their natural temperament. Just search online for tips to help with a shy or introverted child, or what I like to call a “slow-to-warm-up” child. Some simple ways to help them are: get together in smaller groups in quiet, not chaotic environments; arrive before the other child(ren) to get settled; sit on the ground and let your child sit on your lap till they feel ready to venture out. Don’t push.

Learn more in my post on “Teaching Friendship Skills.” Also check out “Making Up for Lost Time” from Bright Horizons.

Easy Play Anywhere Games

It’s super helpful to have ideas for simple games that can be played anytime / anywhere, so when you’re stuck in a line or a waiting room, you’ve got a way to entertain kids.

Most of these work best for children age 5 and up. A few, like I Spy and Scavenger Hunt, are good for younger kids – I’ve marked those with an asterisk.

Talking / Listening Games

These games can be played anywhere, with no materials. (They even work great over the phone or on Zoom.) They can work with two people or with a group. No need to move around to play, so they’re good for restaurants, car trips, etc.

Progressive Stories. One person starts a story: “Once upon a time, a polka-dotted elephant…” then the next person continues “… boarded a spaceship headed for… “

Packing the Suitcase. One person starts with something like “My aunt was going on a trip to Japan and she packed her toothbrush…” and the second person says “My aunt… packed her toothbrush and a four leaf clover.” The third person repeats what has come before and adds a new item. Keep going till someone makes a mistake.

Two Truths and a Lie – Each person tells two true things about themselves and one lie. Others have to guess the lie.

Would you Rather? Ask any question using the format “would you rather ______ or _______” and the other(s) choose their preference, and why.

Fortunately / Unfortunately. One person starts a story with something as simple as “One day I decided to go for a picnic in the park.” Then the next person says “Fortunately [fill in the blank]” then someone else jumps in with “Unfortunately [fill in the blank]” and keep on going… on and on…

Never Have I Ever: One person says “never have I ever _______” and describes something. If you’ve never done it either, you leave your fingers down. If you HAVE done it, raise a finger and keep holding it up. The next person says “never have I ever”. At the end of the game who ever has the most fingers up “wins.”

Play 20 questions. “Is it an animal, vegetable, or mineral?” (Learn more.)

Geography. Someone names a place (city, country, whatever category you decide on). The next person needs to name another place that STARTS with the letter that one ENDED with. So, for example, CaliforniA, ArkansaS, South CarolinA. Can also do animals or other categories following the same rules.

*I’m thinking of an animal that starts with the letter A. You say that… someone guesses it, then it’s their turn to say “I’m thinking of an animal that starts with the letter R, or whatever. Instead of animals, you could do Star Wars characters, Pokemon, or whatever. [For younger children, simplify this by describing things: “I’m thinking of an animal that’s small and brown… we’ve seen one in our backyard… it has long ears…”]

Categories. On NPR’s Sunday puzzle, he sometimes has a puzzle like “If I give you the 5 letter word Piano, can you give me five women’s names that start with the letters in PIANO?” (e.g. Paula, Inez, Amy, Nadia, Olivia). We pick any five letter word, and do categories like “Cities in Washington” or “Models of Car” or “Animals” or whatever.

And if all that was too cerebral, try: Rock Paper Scissors and Thumb Wrestling.

*I Spy. One person finds something they can see around them, says “I spy with my little eye….” The other person searches for it. When they find it, it’s their turn. For toddlers, this is simple “I spy something red” or “I spy a dog.” For older kids, it’s more sophisticated “I spy something starting with the letter L” or “I spy something that was made before 1980.”

Paper and Pencil Games

These just require something to write on. Paper, white board, the Zoom white board, etc.

Tic-Tac-Toe. Draw out a grid – you and opponent take turns drawing in X and O.

Hang Man. You come up with a word, draw out the hangman. Participants guess letters.

*Doodle Game. One person makes a random scribble, then the other person needs to use that scribble as the foundation for a drawing – creating some artwork that somehow includes that scribble. For young children, they always do the scribble, the grown-up always completes the drawing.

Dots and Squares. Draw several columns of dots. Person 1 draws a line between two dots, then person 2, then person 1 again… whenever they complete all four sides of a box, they write their initial in the box.

Draw on Your Head. The child places the paper on top of their head. Then you give a clue, like flower, bird, house, etc. They draw a picture on top of their head without looking, and then share it.

Find details on these and more pen and paper games here: https://www.thelondonmother.net/easy-pen-and-paper-games/

Moving Around Games

*Play Simon Says. Or Red Light, Green Light. Or any of the MANY variations on Tag.

*Scavenger Hunt Fetch. Ask child(ren) to find certain objects – they run and find it and bring it back.

*Charades. Give a clue to one person – they act it out – others guess. For younger children, you act things out, they guess.

On the Move Games

These are for when you’re walking or moving in a car or on a bus or train…

License Plate Game. How many states or provinces can you spot license plates from over the course of a trip. If you print a map of the states, your child can color each in as they find the license plate, which will reinforce geography knowledge for them.

Find the Alphabet on Signs. Find a sign with the letter A on it. Then another sign with the letter B. And so on. (Or do the same with numbers.)

*Find Colors. Spot something red, then orange, yellow, green, blue, purple…

*Scavenger Hunt. Prepare (or find online) a list of items to try to spot as you travel. Or you can create Bingo boards. For younger children, just tell them one idea at a time to search for – can you find an animal?

Punch Buggy. If you see a Volkswagen Beetle and call Punch Buggy, you get to punch someone. P’diddle, P’daddle. After dark, if you see a car with one missing headlight, you say p-diddle, and if you see a car with no headlights, you say p-daddle. You get to kiss someone.

Encore. Name a word – other people try to sing songs including that word.

While You Were Sleeping. When someone wakes up from a nap, make up a crazy story of “what they missed”.

There are more fun ideas for road trip games here: https://www.erieinsurance.com/blog/road-trip-games-to-play

Gift Guide: Toys to Build Toddler Brains

photo showing toys like Duplo train, Quadro climber

Parents often ask me for recommendations for “the best toys for toddlers”. It’s a little tricky for me, given that I often advocate for owning fewer toys. But, if you’d like a few special items for a child to unwrap for their birthday, Christmas, or another holiday, here are some thoughts on how to choose the best toys. I’m going to sort them into categories based on ways to build a variety of skills and multiple intelligences. (I also recommend you check out my handout on activities and free items which also help to build their brains.)

Word Play (Linguistic / Verbal Intelligence)

We go to the library a lot! And when my son was a toddler, we went to story-time at the library every week. This means we get to “try out” hundreds of books a year for free! We only buy copies of the very best. Here are my favorites for books that toddlers love, preschool level books about inventors and makers, and books that sing. (For your adult reading enjoyment, here’s my recommendations for recommended parenting books and resources for teaching STEM to kids.)

It’s also helpful to play a lot with letters: I like magnetic letters for the refrigerator (which you can use all over the house) and duplo letters.

I also recommend a Kindle Fire tablet with Kindle FreeTime installed, which includes lots of ABC games and literacy building apps. (Here are thoughts on making screen time work for your family.)

Doing the Numbers (Logical – Mathematical Intelligence)

Everything you have more than one of is a math toy! You can count how many blocks you have, figure out whether you have more trains than balls, and so on. A few helpful specialty math tools are: a set of Duplo numbers, which you can use for counting, number recognition, while mixing them into your building tools, Unifix Cubes, and a great app called Bedtime Math. Every night at bedtime, we read a story problem and solve some math puzzles related to that story.

Putting the Pieces Together (Spatial Intelligence)

I like wooden puzzles for younger children and jigsaw puzzles for older kids. Melissa and Doug is generally a reliable brand. Babies 6 – 18 months like stacking toys and shape sorters. Toddlers love wooden train tracksto assemble and a big collection of wooden trains.

There’s tons of great building toys for older kids (I list many here in my STEM Gift Guide) but my all-time favorite is building toy to give is a basic Duplo set. For a 5 – 6 year old, choose basic Legos.

Moving & Grooving (Bodily – Kinesthetic Intelligence)

I would recommend several balls of varying sizes and textures, a Nerf style baseball bat, a Strider bike, and plenty of time to run and play indoors and out.

Rather than buying a pre-made climber that can never change configurations, I recommend a climber built of Quadro (Quadro is a fabulous combination of building toy and playground equipment! We’ve had ours for 20 years now, in near constant use.)

Playing Well With Others (Interpersonal Intelligence)

Imaginary play and telling stories with characters is one way to build interpersonal intelligence. Choose a few stuffed animals or puppets,  a collection of finger puppets to tell stories with, a toy picnic basket with fake food.

Learning about Myself and How I Feel (Intrapersonal Intelligence)

This category of intelligence isn’t about tangible stuff. It’s more about interaction and emotion coaching, and also making sure your child has time for quiet contemplation and down time.

Song and Dance Routines (Musical Intelligence)music

We have a box of miscellaneous musical instruments he can pull out anytime he wants. A few were purchased for him, but most are just items that have entered our lives over the years, like the plastic Yamaha recorder I had as a child, and the plastic Yamaha recorder I had to buy for my daughter’s class when I couldn’t find my old one… We also have a very old electric piano that’s in his room and he spends part of many “nap times” exploring the piano.

We listen to a lot of music together (one older sibling loves Broadway show tunes, one loves vintage jazz, Abuela loves classical and Spanish music) and sing songs A LOT, and enjoy circle-time songs at BC classes and library story times and hymns at church.

Fun with Flora and Fauna (Naturalistic Intelligence)

As you can guess if you’ve read other posts on my blog, we spend a lot of time outdoors. Camping, hikes, zoo trips, farmer’s markets, walks to the library and the pool. The only “tools” we use outdoors are a bucket and a shovel. (But, when we forget them, a stick and a rock can fill in as digging tools, and an empty Starbucks cup from the car makes a fine bucket.) Some day we’ll find our binoculars again, and pick up a new magnifying glass.

Expanding Horizons (Magic / Imagination / Religion / Cultures)

We have a big box of miscellaneous dress up – old Halloween costumes from his siblings, sunglasses, silly hats, etc. In all of our books and the videos we watch together, we aim for showing lots of diverse cultures and experiences, and we go to a church that talks a lot about diverse beliefs and appreciation of the sacred in all forms.

All the Pretty Colors (Artistic Skills and Appreciation)

This is the one area we have an abundance of STUFF.

One cabinet in the kitchen is over-flowing with art supplies: Model Magic clay, no-spill watercolors, pom poms, pipe cleaners, paint, paper, glitter glue, stickers, markers, crayons, beads, scissors, and so on. When he and I are in a relaxed, mellow mood, we pull these out and get to work.

I try not to do much art when I’m in a cranky mood, or when I won’t have time to deal with any mess that arises. I have to confess that I can have a hard time when he’s being really messy or “wasting” art supplies, or “messing up” art supplies – like when he dips the red-paint-covered paintbrush into the yellow paint. Because I know that about myself, I make sure that he has plenty of opportunity to do art in spaces that are designed for kids’ art and where it’s OK to make a mess. So, this year, he’s enrolled in Creative Development Lab, which is all about exploring and experimenting with art.

Child-Directed Play

In addition to buying stuff for your kid to play with, also make sure they have some time to play with you that is child-directed – where they get to decide what they want to play. Learn more about child-directed play.

If you have an older child, check out my Gift Guide to STEM Toys for Ages 3 – 6.

(Note: this post includes Amazon affiliate links. If you click through and purchase anything, I get a small referral fee. I spend any income from that on doing outreach to encourage more parents and educators to come check out what I offer here on this blog.)

Fun with Toddlers: Pet Theme

This month’s theme was Pets, especially dogs and cats. Here are some fun pet-related things to do with your toddler:

Outings to Go On: Visit a pet store. Look at the fish, or the rodents, or the birds or reptiles. The pet store is just as educational as the zoo, and it’s free! It’s a great chance to talk to your child about animals, and to practice observation skills: “Can you find a yellow fish?” “Which is the biggest bird?” “These are all reptiles. What makes them different from the rodents we just looked at?” If you don’t have a pet at home, don’t feel like you have to buy anything. Most pet stores are used to parents coming in and hanging out with their children for a while. If you want, you could buy a bag of pet food to donate to the store’s pet food drive. (Look for a donation bin at the front of the store.)

Toys to make for your child

Balloon Puppies. Take a balloon. Blow it up. Draw animal features on, add a string and you have an instant pet for your child to take on a walk! If you want to be fancy, you could use a helium balloon and fasten on “legs” made of accordion-folder paper – the home made version of the toy pictured.

petsDoggy ears (or kitty ears). Make a circle of paper that fits around your child’s head and add ears, or turn a child’s headband into the base for ears.

Imagination Games to Play

The Dog House. Take a big cardboard box. Cut an arched doorway in it. Decorate it like a dog house. Add things to represent dog food dishes, dog bones, dog toys and more. Add stuffed puppies if you have them, and then let the play begin.

Pet Store. Set up a pet store with stuffed animals, and accessories for animals (food bowls, collars, treats, toys, and so on, and go shopping.

Songs to Sing / Rhymes to Say

Where has my little dog gone?
Oh where, oh where has my little dog gone?
Oh where, oh where can he be?
With his ears cut short and his tail cut long,
Oh where, oh where can he be?

How Much is that Doggie in the Window
How much is that doggie in the window? The one with the waggly tail?
How much is that doggie in the window? I do hope that doggie’s for sale.
[Search on YouTube for many videos of this song!]

I have a cat
I have a cat (stroke your fist); My cat is fat (arms form a stomach)
I have a cat (stroking); My cat wears a hat (hands on head)
I have a cat (stroking); My cat caught a bat (clap hands together above head)
I have a cat (stroking) Purrrrrr, Meowwww

Circle Time Ideas

Poor Kitty. There is a game that elementary school aged children love called “Poor Kitty”. One person pretends to be the kitty and goes around a circle, trying to make the other kids laugh (by purring rubbing against them, licking them…). The others are supposed to keep a straight face and just pet the “cat” and say “poor kitty” without laughing. You can adapt this for a one-on-one game with toddlers or preschoolers. (Though they probably won’t get the whole “you’re not supposed to laugh” idea.)

Puppy puppet. Bring a puppy puppet and some dog treats (or dog toys.) Give a treat to each child. Bring the puppy around the circle and have each child give the dog a treat. Have fun with pretending to be a happy puppy.

Purple cat, what do you see. Make a felt board collection of pets – brown dog, black cat, yellow bird, gold fish, etc. Give one animal to each child. Do the rhyme, similar in style to Eric Carle’s Brown Bear. Go around the circle to each child in turn, having them place their animal on the felt board. So, if you started with brown dog, and the first child has a black cat, you’d say “Brown Dog, Brown Dog, what do you see? I see a black cat looking at me.”

Books to Read

Roly-Poly Puppies by Elaine Moore. A counting book with a nice rhyming structure.

Pete the Cat by James Dean. There are lots of fun Pete books, but the best is I Love My White Shoes. (Check out our Pinterest page for lots of activities to go with Pete books!)

Aggie and Ben by Lori Ries. Ben’s dad takes him to the pet store to pick out a pet.

More ideas (and source citations) at: www.pinterest.com/bcparented

For my full collection of theme-based “Fun with Toddlers”, click on “Fun with Toddlers series” in the right hand side bar. Or if you would like them in printable handout form to share with students, click here.

Engineering and Preschoolers

Engineering challengeI loved this post on “The Educator’s Spin on It” which gave an idea for an engineering experiment to try with a preschool age child, and also included broader tips on how to build Engineer-Thinking skills in your child, book recommendations about engineering, and so on. But when I read it yesterday, I didn’t expect to try the experiment today!

Then today, we had one hour before nap-time, and needed a new idea for an activity. My son asked for fizzy science experiments, and we played for a while with vinegar and baking soda. Then he asked for a new science experiment.

I remembered the post, and said: “Let’s build a rain shelter.” We made a bunny-like object out of a paper towel and talked about how we could keep it dry. First, I asked my son how to keep dry, and his first idea was to wear a raincoat and rain pants. (He goes to an outdoor preschool in Seattle, so is well practiced in this method!)  We put bunny in a ziploc bag (aka his raincoat – my son is not quite savvy enough to realize how bad a plan a ziploc would be if the bunny actually needed to breathe!). And then we ran bunny under the faucet. Sure enough the “raincoat” kept him dry.

Then we took off the raincoat, and practiced having bunny hide under a flat roof. (The lid off a bistro box from Starbucks.) That worked for a little “rain” but when we had a lot of rain the flat roof spilled over. But the “roof” we were using had “gutters”, so we cut out a section and added a straw for a downspout. (Then we had lots of chances to sing the Itsy Bitsy Spider and talk about waterspouts.) We then folded the lid in half to see the advantage of peaked roofs over flat roofs.

Then we made a “tree” out of shredded up plastic bag… that also shielded our bunny till there was just too much rain and the “ground” (the plate the bunny was on) got so wet there were big puddles that ran under the “tree” and soaked the bunny.

After that we walked around our house and looked at our gutters and rainspouts. We tracked where the rain would flow out of the spout, down the driveway, out to the road and down the street to the storm drain, and talked about how it goes to the lake from there. We looked at the flat roofs and peaked roofs in the neighborhood.

In the end, it was a fabulous hour of interactive discovery inspired by a blog post I read yesterday morning. I would have never thought of this project on my own, and am so glad that I get to benefit from the shared creativity of other educators and parents!