The Emergence of Social Play in the 2-Year-Old Classroom

By Betsy Koning and Nandini Bhattacharjya, Head Teachers

The age of two to three is a period of dramatic growth. As children this age come to school and interact with peers through open-ended play in a group environment, they build foundational social skills that are vital throughout their lives.

In the Twos program, classroom activities and materials often provide the first means to bring the children together in interactions. As the 2-year-olds begin to experiment with basic and open-ended materials, discovering the properties of sand, water, paint and play dough, they work in close proximity and learn to share space and resources. They begin to take note of how other children use materials and thereby expand their own repertoire for using equipment and supplies. 

Often a 2-year-old’s first reciprocal social interactions are with a teacher. Some children have previously participated in adult-led group activities such as games—and in these situations the presence of a familiar adult creates a feeling of security and comfort. At Bing, the teachers become the familiar adults and provide a sense of sanctuary among the many variables they experience at school. The teacher then acts as a social bridge between children, their peers and other adults. This familiar adult models how to interact with others, including ways to join a game, ask for materials or state that they are still using the material but others can have a turn when they are done.

As the 2-year-olds acquire more social language and a basic understanding of symbolism, they start to engage in pretend play, which inspires more social interaction. Props provided in the classroom encourage the children to come together to play out familiar activities like riding on a train or cooking and eating a meal. These types of common experiences provide a body of shared knowledge that the children can build on together. As one child pretends to perform or talks about an action like buckling their seatbelt or serving snacks in the context of dramatic play, others join in pretending to perform this action too and adding ideas of their own. This is one of the first stages of social play. In the beginning, these interactions may manifest themselves as parallel play—children often engage in the same activity in close proximity without direct physical or verbal interaction and then begin to note what one another are doing.

When children participate in these interactions, teachers’ modeling and narration help them learn one another’s names, preferences and play styles. They begin to initiate contact by greeting each other by name, seeking out certain playmates and inviting them to join in games they have played together previously. For instance, as two children approached a play set-up with two toy steering wheels with rows of small chairs lined up behind them, they looked around for others who could join them in going on a trip. “Whooo! Whooo!” called Miles as he slid into the driver’s seat. “All aboard! Who’s going to ride the train?” Nearby children heard his call and clambered into the empty seats, pretending to hand the conductor leaf “tickets,” stow their belongings and fasten their seatbelts while calling, “Everybody, buckle up!”

In this example, turns with the two steering wheels were in high demand—a state of affairs that gave teachers a chance to help the children build social problem-solving skills. The children at the wheels became aware of others waiting, and they experienced the need to be patient once their turn was over. Children who hadn’t been at the wheel yet learned to ask for a turn and wait for their chance to drive. This activity helped bring the needs and wants of their peers to their attention and fostered the beginnings of empathy. 

Even at this young age, children can act with empathy. For example, a particular dress-up item—a vest covered with pictures of construction vehicles—was a big favorite of one of the children. Frequently when other children saw the vest hanging among the dress-up clothes, they would bring it to the child who they knew enjoyed it so much. She was always pleased to receive it and reinforced this action by saying thank you and displaying obvious pleasure at its receipt.

As children gain more skills and awareness, their pretend play becomes more elaborate and continues for longer periods of time. They return to previous play themes, adding more characters and details. For example, in the train set-up play, the children found short wooden planks to serve as their seatbelts. Also, the driver asked passengers where they wanted to go and pretended to stop at different stations, such as the park or ice cream shop. As the players become well versed in the game, it’s easier to include more people and expand the storyline. Furthermore, they incorporate the familiar materials in the classroom into their play in order to represent their more intricate ideas. For instance, they might use small redwood cones and blocks as food, or a short stick as a key to start the engine.

Throughout the school year, different play styles emerge. Initially, children choose roles they are comfortable in. Then they may slowly branch out and experiment trying new parts in the game. Some may be generating ideas, some may collect materials, some may try to recruit other players and some may carefully observe the play. All these roles are an important part of play and of the child’s social development.