The time that your child spends interacting with other children is a lot more than just “play”. They are learning to socialize, which is a very important part of healthy development. Playing together gives children an opportunity to learn social skills, confidence, language development and consideration for others.
Stranger anxiety is also a common part of child development, so at first, all the new sounds and faces might scare your child, especially as a baby. Take it slowly, and follow their lead. Knowing that mommy or daddy isn’t far away can help your child ease into socializing. In the meanwhile, just watching other babies will be fun for your baby too!
It may take some time for their play activities to involve another child directly, though – children under 5 generally engage in something called “parallel play”, where they will be spending time with other children but still “doing their own thing”, for example playing Lego separately while sitting together at a table. However, the time that they spend seeing what other children are doing is also very stimulating for their development, and over time they will become more confident in direct interaction.
So how can I help my little one?
As a parent, you can encourage your child’s socialization through playdates, and play events such as playgroups. Social skills are truly a “skill”, gained through practice and experience; by giving your child the opportunity to develop these skills, you are helping them to learn and grow.
If your child is clinging to you and nervous at playdates or playgroup, get down on the floor with them and encourage their confidence through your presence in the interaction. Introduce your child to other children, and play with toys as a group.
It’s great to have a variety of places to go and activities to do with your child, but going to the same place once or twice a week (the children’s section of the library, a “baby gym” class, the park, etc.) can give them a sense of familiarity through repetition, like a “home away from home”. Make outings where they can socialize into part of their regular routine, and gradually any nervousness about socialization will be replaced by enjoyment.
By the same token, it’s also great if they can see some familiar faces as well as new ones, so if your child seems to get on well with a particular child at playgroup, etc., you could make playdates with that child into a regular part of your routine as well!
It’s all too easy as an adult to only expose your child to other adults, especially if (like many parents!) you don’t have relatives or friends with young children. But remember: socializing with one’s own age group (for example, the children of one’s village) has been a time-honoured way for children to learn to socialize. Their peers are at a similar developmental stage, and have a lot to teach them.
Make the time to ensure that your child is playing with others in their own age group, and it will pay off handsomely in terms of watching their progress towards being a confident, sociable child. Just bringing two children of the same age group together is very stimulating for both of them, as they learn to share, care and chatter with each other.