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Social Development in Toddlers

In their relentless drive to explore the world, toddlers gradually acquire social skills that enable them to get on successfully with other people. Many of these skills are acquired through observation and imitation of the adults closest to them.

The development of social skills also depends on interaction and activity with other children. Even though toddlers may not make real friends until their third year, if they have been given plenty of opportunities to play with other children, they will be at an advantage when they go to toddler group or preschool

Influences on social development

Social development depends on many variables. Some of these include:

• Genetic predisposition
• Psychological and heath factors
• Cultural values and beliefs
• Attitudes and aspirations
• Positive role models
• Play opportunities
• Interaction with other children
• A safe, nurturing and stimulating environment
• Maturation of the nervous system

Social development is a dynamic and interactive process in which temperament, personality, experiences with parents and carers, cognitive abilities, language, and communication skills influence the outcomes.

Types of social play

The development of social skills follows a set pattern, which is summarized below:

Solitary play - babies play alone, but they may study the interactions of other children with toys and verbalize as though engaged in conversation with them. They may become assertive over their possessions or show aggression towards other babies for no obvious reason.

Onlooker play - toddlers watch other children play, but they are unable to participate socially. However, they are very alert to their play activities and when alone, they may imitate their actions.

Parallel play - two-year-olds play alongside other children and they may make intermittent interactions with them. However, cooperation and give-and-take are limited. They may grab the toys of other children but learn valuable social skills in the process.

Associative play
- in the third year, there may be some materials shared, but there is no common goal. However, the foundations for cooperative play have been formed and gradually with adult help, toddlers learn to cooperate.

Cooperative play – in their fourth year, children interact and work together to solve problems. In so doing, they take account of the needs of others, learn to share, and build friendships

Social milestones

Social development starts at birth and continues throughout childhood. It is a process that is linked to emotional development.

There is a wide variation in the age at which toddlers acquire social skills. If the toddler has not reached a milestone, it does not mean that there are any developmental problems.

Newborn to 12 months

Newborn babies learn social skills through reciprocal interactions with other people. The first social signals include eye contact, smiles and animated body movements, which become more specialised in the months to come.

Six to nine-month-old babies often respond aversively to social situations. Fear of other people and separation anxiety suggests that they recognise which relationships are passing, and which ones are stable.

12 to 24 months

Shyness and a fear of strangers are common traits in the first part of the second year. When toddlers become more mobile, they eagerly explore their world and engage with other people. By the end of the second year, they may imitate the actions and behaviours of other children and take an interest in their play. However, kicking, biting, stubbornness and temper tantrums are common

Unacceptable behaviour usually diminishes by the end of the second year as toddlers learn what is expected of them.

2 to 3 years

Two-year-olds tend to be very self-centered, but even so, they generally want to help and please. By the time toddlers reach their third birthday, they have developed an understanding of how other people think and feel. They enjoy the company of other children and they will interact with them and wait briefly for their own turn. Pretend play becomes a prominent activity, where toddlers take on roles and express their ideas and feelings about the social world.


Toddlers do not play together in groups until their fourth year. Before then, they may have bouts of separation anxiety and they may shy away from new social situations.

Insisting that toddlers interact with other children can make them uncomfortable. If shyness is handled with patience and calm understanding, toddlers will make social advancements at their own pace.

The following strategies may be helpful:

⭐ Join a toddler group, where toddlers can see other children having fun in an
informal atmosphere.
⭐ Gradually introduce toddlers to their peers, but do not force them to get
involved until they are ready.
⭐ If the toddler is unable to cope, ensure that familiar objects and cuddles are
readily available.
⭐ Encourage toddlers to make just one friend. This will give them confidence in
the social setting.
⭐ Keep organized playtime with other children short (an hour or so for younger
toddlers; two hours for older ones).
⭐ Build self-esteem and confidence by praising every effort to play and interact
with other children.
⭐ Exchange contact telephone numbers, email addresses or Facebook details
with other parents. If an opportunity to get toddlers together comes up, they
will be easy to reach.

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