September 10, 2015 Mary & Suzanne

Social Skills and Social Play: Park style

Social Play and Social Skills

As pediatric occupational therapists, we naturally think about what skills, activities, and requirements occupy a child’s day. While the words occupation and child aren’t often thought of together, pediatric OT’s think in these terms a lot! So what occupations do children have? Here are 5 to get you thinking this way too:

  1. Student
  2. Sibling
  3. Friend
  4. Player
  5. Explorer

All of these important roles in a child’s life have something in common. They all require developed social skills. Children learn social skills through play and interactions modeled by their parents, family members and friends in the community. A huge component to understanding how successful children are at being able to pick up appropriate social skills and subtle nuances is how they process sensory information!

Here are the sensory-based foundations that underlie social skills. The basics that we need to make friends and engage in social play are:

  1. Listening skills
  2. Eye contact and the ability to notice and understand the meaning of non-verbal cues from other people
  3. Attention and focus
  4. The ability to modulate behavior to get “in sync” with another person

To gain these skills, we need good integration of sensory information in the following areas:

  1. Auditory awareness and discrimination
  2. Visual tracking and sustaining visual attention
  3. Behavior modulation, focus and attention
  4. Coordination and rhythmicity
  5. Accurate interpretation of touch

Why do we think social skills and social play are so important?

Play is often defined as a child’s primary occupation. Through play, children begin to learn cooperation and turn taking, problem solving, gain confidence and curiosity and enhance communication. They learn how to plan, focus and strive for goals. Social play provides the opportunities to learn to repair misunderstandings, find mutual interests and develop sustained attention. Often occurring naturally during free play, social play can also affect emotional health! Researchers have noted that there has been a decline in the amount of time children have for free play and have linked this decline with increased anxiety. Children need free-play to stay healthy and happy!

When a child is not processing sensation accurately, it can affect the quality of his play.

Benson, et .al. (2006), identified specific play hiccups in a child with poor sensory integration. In our years as pediatric OT’s, we see the same hiccups on a regular basis!

  • Play limitations: children with sensory integration challenges often are limited in their play repertoire, choosing ‘safe’ and ‘familiar’ choices, rather than branching out to new experiences and explorations.
  • Poor attention: it is often observed that children with SI struggles engage with activities for very brief periods of time, and are not highly involved with imagination or creativity.
  • Minimal emotional investment: appearing bored, disengaged and uninterested
  • Sensory seeking play: our kids often seek large amounts of movement, pressure, touch, or sound. This type of play may not be something other children seek out, socially isolating the child.
  • Developmental level of play: SI challenges including motor planning, defensiveness/discrimination, sensitivities and motor skills may contribute to a lower level of play than peers of a similar chronological age.

How do we create sensory supports for developing social skills and social play?

Throughout our Passport to the Park posts, we suggest a ton of fun activities that encourage sensory exploration, processing and integration that primes your child for play! By developing a strong sensory foundation rich in heavy work, movement, touch discrimination, coordination and the rhythm of play, your child will likely be warmed up and ready for play dates!

It is true, some children need more help with the ins and outs of social skills than their peers. Not to worry! There are basic rules of social engagement that children follow and can learn. Helping your child to understand these rules is a great place to start. Two child-friendly books that we have found helpful in teaching children about social skills are:

Now for the fun part! Here are some super ways to get social play going at your local park!

  • Bring toys! Packing something enticing and bringing it to the park is sure to draw social attention! The items that we pack in our Park Kits draw a crowd every time, especially the balloons, balloon pump, and scooter board! (Just be careful how others use your scooter board! We definitely want everyone to stay safe and avoid bumps and falls!) Taking turns using the balloon pump, pulling each other while laying down on the scooter board, or playing balloon Hot-Potato can foster turn taking, communication, and imagination!
  • Pick a theme! Identifying a theme that your child enjoys and beginning play there can help provide a bit of organization to others as to how to join in! Once started, stand back and see where the kids take the ideas! Playing restaurant, pirates, outer space, or birthday party are hard to say no to! Props like hats or buckets can go a long way too! Bring extra and be prepared to share!
  • Talk to your children about the nuances of play with others, before you get to the park! We sometimes refer to this as “frontloading” your child. Discussing which toys they are ok with sharing, appropriate ways of initiating interactions, and how to navigate frustrations can decrease potential bumps in the social play road.
  • Games:
    • Balloon volleyball or tennis – teamwork is needed to try keeping the balloon in the air for as long as possible. Call out a person’s name when you want them to be next to swat the balloon!
    • Water balloon toss – can reinforce eye contact and communication to make sure each participant is ready for the catch!
    • Soccer or basketball – requires cooperation, sharing, and listening to others
    • Squirt bottle tag- this is just plain FUN for all on a hot day!
    • Social Red Rover – chock-full of motor skills, listening skills, and social opportunities for greeting peers and learning about each other!  (Thanks for this one Your Therapy Source!)
    • “Train”: have peer sit on a towel and pull them down a grassy slope. This one might take more than one person pulling, but is a great way to work together, problem solve, and imagine!
    • Hide and seek- get creative with ways of ‘finding’ friends to practice appropriate greetings and interactions. When playing with multiple peers, ask each ‘found’ friend to help find the next! A great opportunity to create and discuss rules, trouble shoot and get moving!

Enjoy this little compilation of social play moments that we have shared at our local parks!

Not sure where your child might fall in the development of social interactions progression? In her post Essential Social Skills to Survive the School Playground, Cindy @ Your Kids OT shares what is age appropriate, and offers some great suggestions for how to support a child who struggles with social skills.

The park is a time to imagine, laugh, and learn! Happy play time and we will see you at the park!

*FYI our posts contain affiliate links. By purchasing through these links, we get a bit back to help keep our little blog running! Thanks!


Benson, J., Nicka, M., Stern, P. (2006). How does a child with sensory processing problems play? The Internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice. Vol. 4, No. 4.

Bundy, A. C., Shia, S., Qi, L., & Miller, L. J. (2007). How does sensory processing dysfunction affect play? American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61, 201–208.


Comments (2)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.