Playing with Friends: Supporting Social Skills in Play

Playing with Friends: Supporting Social Skills in Play

Playing with friends can be rewarding, memorable and fun! However, when difficulties exist, or when certain social skills are not well established, it can be stressful, frustrating, and even upsetting (for both children and parents). It can also ultimately mean that calm, interactive play is short lived. Rest assured, longer, more sustained stretches of play with friends is possible with the right kind of practise.

Many factors contribute to successful shared play, and paediatric occupational therapists play an important role in supporting social skill development. Let’s take a look at some key social skills and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) from parents around how to best support children when things don’t go to plan, shared play breaks down or ends in a ‘meltdown’.

Playing with Friends- Kids Play Space Pin


  • Sensory regulation: Children need to be able to be calm and regulated from a sensory perspective, in order to feel comfortable sharing the same play space as their peers, and to be able to draw upon and utilise all other social skills effectively. And, they need to be able to remain calm when emotions are tested, and when the sensory demands or complexity of the play scenario increase.
  • Language: Receptive and expressive language are both extremely important when children play together. They need to be able to notice, correctly interpret and appropriately respond to both verbal and non verbal communication cues of their play partners. Speech and Language Pathologists are the experts in assessing and making specific recommendations in this area.
  • Shared engagement: It’s important for children to be able to notice and join others’ play ideas, as well as accept others’ in their own play space and activity. This requires an understanding of what is expected, and preparation and planning of one’s own movements and actions, in order to match their peers’ participation. It also requires a degree of flexibility.

Playing with Friends - Supporting Social Skills in Play- chalk drawing

  • Sensory motor skills: Children need to be able to move their body safely, smoothly and efficiently, in the context of the play. They also need to have a strong sense of where their body is in relation to their peers.
  • Reciprocity: This is about participating in lovely ‘back and forth’ interactions (with or without words), where someone initiates an idea and their play partner responds (and vice versa)!
  • Problem solving and negotiation: This relies on complex cognitive and communication skills to move through tricky play moments. Working out how to best solve problems, understand each other’s perspective, and how to proceed keeping all players happy is no easy feat! Who will go first? What will the rules be? What if we all want the same toy/item? What if we can’t agree on what to play? What if something we need is not available? What if someone gets hurt? What if someone gets upset? …

Playing with Friends - Supporting Social Skills in Play- tree climbing

  • Planning and sequencing: Identifying what the requirements of play ideas are (roles/parts, rules, order of play, environment/tools needed), and being able to communicate these effectively (clearly and concisely) to friends, is another important social skill, to ensure everyone is ready and willing to play the same game/play idea, in the same (agreed) way.
  • Symbolic and imaginative play skills: Higher level social play, requires children to also be able to link ideas, discern reality from fantasy, and tap into a wide range of emotions.

Playing with Friends superhero play

“It’s all fun and games… until someone ends up in tears”

Playing with friends is hard, and doesn’t always meet expectations. When the flow of play ‘breaks down’ for one reason or another, it can be really frustrating and upsetting.

Developing social skills takes time, repetition (practise), and active support from parents/educators (without taking over), in order to move through social ‘stumbling blocks’ and stay connected.

For an example of active facilitation of social skills, check out this child-led adventure: “Two boys, one football, and a shiny red bike”


Here are my most FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS (FAQs) regarding social skills, along with some general recommendations: 

Q: How can I help my child to play with a friend on a ‘play date’ rather than doing his/her own thing? 

A: Forcing children to play something against their will, before they are ready is only going to lead to stress for all parties. Shared play should be a positive, fun experience. Watching from the sidelines, can actually still be incredibly valuable. Even whilst ‘doing their own thing’, children will begin to notice what their peers are playing, how they are playing and what might be expected of them when/if they decide to join in.

I’d suggest occasionally ‘narrating’ (commenting) on what each child is doing, to support them to cue into others in the play space. For example, “Ohhhh! Abbey is collecting some really interesting leaves and rocks!… I wonder what she’s going to do with them!” I’d also look for occasional opportunities to join or encourage links between the play ideas. For example, “Hey Abbey! What’s Billie cooking in that saucepan? Do you think she might like to add some rocks or leaves in the mixture too? Maybe you could ask her!” or “Abbey, do you need a saucepan too? Looks like you two are both gathering some great ingredients!”

Q: My child is a really ‘bad loser’, and gets really upset when he/she loses. What should I do to help them learn about winning and losing? 

A: This one really takes a lot of practise. Nothing stirs up the emotions like losing, when we are trying to remain in control and develop a healthy self esteem!

I’d recommend role modelling – showing by example, what it’s like to lose, acknowledging the feelings of disappointment and a way forward. For example, “Ohhh! I really did want to win! Never mind, the most important thing is that we’re all playing together. Good game, you played well. Maybe I’ll win next time!”

Sometimes a pre-warning is helpful too, for a little more ‘processing time’ to prepare, such as, “Only one person/team can win each game. How do you think you might feel if you lose? Do you think you’ll be OK to keep playing? As long as everyone plays fairly, by the rules, everyone will have a good chance at winning.”

Furthermore, little, shorter practises interspersed with success can make it easier to manage losing. Tic Tac Toe (O’s and X’s) is a good example where games are short and sweet. In a short time,  your child can experience  winning, drawing, and watching you lose… and if they are feeling calm enough, losing themselves. When kids are tired, unwell, unsettled/dysregulated or having to focus extra hard to participate in a new, challenging game, ‘losing’ takes on a whole new degree of difficulty, so choose your practise moments carefully!

Playing with Friends - Supporting Social Skills in Play- running

Q: How can I teach my child to be better at taking turns?

A: Repetitious ‘turn taking’ style games are perfect practise opportunities for turn taking. For example: obstacle courses, ‘Follow the Leader’, What’s the Time Mr Wolf?, Simon Says, shooting basketball hoops, “Celebrity Heads”, simple board games…

Other ideas include: timers (eg. countdowns, trampoline/swing turns for X minutes until the timer sounds or until the end of the song), visual cues to position body whilst waiting (eg.’waiting chairs’ or chalk drawn spots on the ground), role modelling, and narrating (“It’s Johnny’s turn! Everyone else is waiting!”). It’s also useful to practise turn taking with one or two others initially, rather than a large group, which requires more patience, attention and sensory regulation.

Q: Our child always wants to play the same game. Should I be worried?  

A: It’s quite common for kids to have their own special ‘passions’, in fact, these interests really form part of their identity. There are lots of positives that can come from children incorporating their latest ‘obsessions’ in play, including being key motivators for social skill practise.

You may be interested in the related post: Trains and Planes: A Child-Led Obsession, which looks at a real life example of the benefits of children’s special interests as they develop over time, and how to help scaffold their play skills with these favourite past times.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Some parents might wonder if there is ever a point when kids’ ‘obsessions’ might become concerning. Children learn so much through repetitive play. Chances are high that adult players and onlookers will become bored well before children! Repetition allows for gross motor, fine motor, language, social and play skill development. As the saying goes: “Practise makes perfect”! Each time a child engages in that same task, activity, imaginative/symbolic play scenario – they are consolidating a whole range of skills, as well as gaining self-confidence.

What we should be seeing over time though, as well as the all time favourite play ideas, is the natural and spontaneous‘variations on a theme’. If children seem really ‘stuck’, that is a great opportunity to help take their skills to the next level and broaden their repertoire of play experiences.”

Joining children in their idea, and introducing (demonstrating) slight ‘variations on a theme’ is a key strategy here. For example: If your child is repeatedly driving cars one after the other along a road/path, you might set up a ramp close by and extend their sequence by adding in the ramp run after their path, and maybe even suggest car races.

Q: My son/daughter spends quite a lot of time playing Minecraft and online games. When we meet up with other families/kids, I can see them struggling to play without the iPad (screens). What can we do to help them? 

A: Step one: consider limiting screen time. Evidence shows that social skill development in play is really supported through interactive play rather than screen interfaces.

Next, I’d suggest brainstorming with your child different ways they may be able to incorporate their computer game play ideas into real life activities. One excellent idea is the use of props. For example, puppets, figurines, video camera to shoot little scenes with their friends about the online games, or drawing (posters/paintings/ chalk drawings), sculpting (lego, blocks, play dough, mud…) scenes, worlds or characters from their video stories.

Additionally, broadening the play repertoire can be established via watching, then joining others’ ideas.

Playing with Friends - Supporting Social Skills in Play- playdate

Do you have another question or comment about social skill development? Feel free to leave a comment below, and I’ll do my best to answer you!

Reference: My best recommendation for understanding and supporting social skill development is the work of Dr Stanley Greenspan and the DIR® and the DIRFloortime® approach. For more information, follow the link to The Interdisciplinary Council on Development and Learning, Inc.


This post is part of the Functional Skills for Kids 12 Months Series by Occupational and Physical Therapists. You can read all of the functional skills HERE.

Read all of my monthly posts in this series HERE. Looking for more information about play from an occupational therapy and physical therapy perspective?

Stop by to see what the other OTs and PTs in the Functional Skills for Kids series have written…

The Developmental Progression of Play Skills | Mama OT

Building Fine Motor Skills Through Play  | Sugar Aunts

Gross Motor Skills and the Development of Play in Children | Your Therapy Source

Playing with Friends: Supporting Social Skills in Play  | Kids Play Space

Using Play to Increase Attention | Miss Jaime OT

Help! My Child Won’t Play – Adapting Play for Individual Kids | Growing Hands-On Kids

How Play Makes Therapy Better | Therapy Fun Zone

How the Environment Shapes the Way Kids Play | The Inspired Treehouse

Why is my child “just playing” when they see an OT?  | Your Kids OT

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Thanks for visiting Kids Play Space!

Until soon,

Happy playing!


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  1. Great post! Loved reading the Q and A sections.

    • Anna

      Thanks Margaret! There are so many FAQs it was hard to choose the top 5! Social skills are a real passion of mine! Anna

  2. Cindy@ Your Kids OT

    I love the Q & A section! Each of these questions could have been a separate article. The last question is becoming more and more tricky to answer. I’m finding that kids who visit expect some computerised/technology driven game and it can be quite challenging with older kids to steer them away from this.

    • Anna

      I agree Cindy! Yet… kids LOVE being active too, and the challenge is to ensure kids’ play repertoire is broader than predominantly screen play!

  3. Jaime Spencer

    I love your answers to the FAQ’s – parents often ask me these questions, too! I totally agree that role modeling is the way to go- some kids need to LEARN how to interact, it doesn’t always come naturally!

    • Anna

      Thanks Jaime! It’s a misconception that all children learn to socialise naturally if you just ‘leave them to it’ isn’t it! I also think there’s a bit of an art to the role modelling too – just enough visual examples to learn… but not so much as to take over the child’s play! Thanks for stopping by to comment!! Anna 🙂

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