The early childhood years have been described as the high season of imaginative play . This age, despite tantrums often being problematic, can be a lot of fun for both you as a parent and your child. We can keep our child in the learning zone is by participating in this imaginative play with them and handing over the lead of play to them and their peers. We can also help foster their language through encouraging storytelling, and getting them to introduce talking about emotions in their emerging speech.

Key points

  • Help children but don’t do it for them to keep them in the learning zone
  • Encourage interaction with other children
  • Develop language through play and storytelling
  • Talk and read to your child.

By the age of two, your child will have the basic tools for pretend play, and enough language to start playing and interacting socially with others. Over the next three years or so until they go to school, their social development bursts into flower.

This is an age where we can really make a difference to our child’s social development, by guiding and teaching them.

How can we best do this?

We have already discussed the warmth + guidance of authoritative parenting. As well as this, we need to judge how much instruction and supervision we need to give our child to keep them in the learning zone. This will also depend on the child; how naturally independent and self-reliant they are.

Help them but don’t do it for them

The best way to keep them in the ‘zone’ is to give them the help they need, but no more. If they can do something, then don’t do it for them. If they can’t do it by themselves, find out what assistance they need to get through. It’s kind of like a pilot handing the controls over to the co-pilot. The pilot is there ready and waiting if needed, but the co-pilot is flying the plane. We learn best by doing.

Social skills through interaction

Some of the social skills we learn progressively around 2-3 years of age are: taking turns, looking people in the eye, using body language to communicate, and interacting in increasingly long and complex conversations. The adult-child interactions that were the norm under the age of two, soon extend to more child-child interactions . This is to be encouraged.
If two small children are talking and interacting, they will be creating a learning zone-to-learning zone interaction ; that is, they will be extending each other. A small child is naturally also going to give less support than an adult would, so will tend to push another child harder. The two or more children interacting may still need a guide or some supervision, but we can quietly move to the other side of the room if all is going well.

Some red flags of concern about social and language development:

  • No babbling or pointing by 1 year of age
  • No sharing of interest in objects with another person
  • No single words by 16 months, or no two-word spontaneous phrases by 2 years old
  • Any loss of language or social skills at any age

If any of these are present in your child, you should get them assessed by a doctor.

Language and play

Just as language and play are the main tools our child uses to start understanding the rules of society between 1-2 years of age, these remain critical in the play age.

With regards to language, storytelling is an essential skill. Early in the play age, stories are usually about things and events. Later on, your child will develop more of a sense of self; that other people may have different thoughts and beliefs, and that some of these beliefs may even be false. This enables the stories we tell to become more about what things mean, rather than simply things.

Figure 1 – Storytelling develops language skills

Our children begin to learn context and points of view. When we are telling them stories, or they are telling us a story, these characteristics— context, meaning, perspectives—can be explored and encouraged.

Talk and read to your child

So, once again, it’s good to talk (and read) to your child at this age—but now for longer and with more complexity. Opportunities for this are everywhere: going to the shops, travelling in the car (turn the radio off), at dinner together (turn the TV off), or even watching TV together and discussing what’s on.

If we adopt a ‘tell me more’ approach, rather than firing a series of closed-ended questions at our child, we can help the storyline continue longer, and become more intricate and rich.

During this age, your child will be learning more and more about emotions, and developing some awareness of their own emotional state. Their attachment to us means that children of this age really want to please us, but sometimes find it hard to do so. This is because they are still new to learning self-control, and there are so many damn rules to learn.

If we include more emotional words, phrases and meanings in our storytelling, it can help our children learn these rules, and better control their own emotions. It can also help them understand other people’s emotions, and therefore get on with them better (so, less fights!).