The Power of Play for Social Development

Friendship – it’s something we all strive for, and friends become an intrinsic part of our daily lives. But did you know the ability to socialise and make friends is a skill that begins in early childhood? And play is one of the most vital elements in your capacity to socialise and problem-solve intelligently.

In this fourth and final instalment of our four-part series, we will explore the social benefits of play and how it can influence everything from our ability to have healthy relationships to our level of empathy and beyond. We sat down with Dr Caroline Moul, a research psychologist who teaches the social-cognition stream of the University of Sydney’s Developmental Psychology course, to discuss why play is so powerful.

Image: Westfield Coomera, My Play Patch

What starts in the playground evolves into so much more

The beauty of play is that it can occur almost anywhere, whether it’s spontaneous or constructed, alone or among peers, and in a variety of locations. While the quintessential playground is the perfect place for children to play and develop their physical and mental growth, it’s not the be all, end all.

In fact, while socialisation may begin in the playground, it evolves over the years and spreads into all different types of social outlets. For example, a study into the social benefits of cooperative video game play found that “prosocial effects of cooperative video game play are determined by in-game behaviours that provide or withhold expected helpful behaviours from teammates”.

So we don’t stop learning, and neither is our social development stunted when we reach a certain age. But if we can teach kids to play and socialise productively from an early age, we may be able to give them the tools they need to be a more successful, more empathetic and more socially healthy adult.

Social problem-solving is often invisible to adult eyes

Dr Moul says what might be invisible to an adult’s gaze is actually a complex system of social interactions occurring when children play.

“Say a group of children are making up a new game and deciding on how to play it. To adults watching, it might look like there’s nothing going on, but there’s a huge amount of give and take and social problem-solving. If you have three or more kids, they’re not going to agree straightaway on what those rules are or how they should play the game.

“A play setting allows those kids to figure everything out in a way that’s not formalised. They’ve got to work it out for themselves, and you need to take into account the perspectives of the other children so that the play session can continue. Because that’s what’s so clever about play – if they fail to reach a point where everyone is happy enough to play the game, then the game doesn’t happen. Which means no one gets to play. It’s like catch-22 where they have to work out the rules together.”

Image: Waverly Gardens

Let children work things out for themselves

The risk with not understanding all the socialisation at play in such a setting, Dr Moul says, is that parents and teachers may be too quick to intervene or to offer a more formalised game for the kids to play.

“As an example, sometimes teachers or parents make a rule that all the kids must allow any other child to play with them. The idea is a nice one, the aim is to not let any child feel excluded or left out. But I think that type of restriction is unfair on the kids because it’s underestimating what they’re capable of.

“When you actually allow kids to manage their own dynamics – which are far more sophisticated than you would imagine – you may find there’s a reason a child is not being played with. They may have been unkind, or bossy, and their temporary exclusion may be the other kids saying, ‘Actually, we don’t want to play with you right now because we don’t like your behaviour.’

A temporary exclusion, or refusal to play, is not the same as relational aggression that we can see in older children which is a form of bullying. This “natural consequence” is transient and situation-specific and helps the excluded child to learn which play behaviours to avoid so that they have a better experience next time. Situations like this also allow for children’s natural compassion and empathy skills to blossom. Children readily notice when another child is upset and will often make attempts to comfort them – a very valuable skill for socio-emotional development.

“So it’s about trusting in children’s abilities to learn and to be sensitive and to make special connections that are genuine. Unfortunately, we tend to underestimate that quite a lot.”

2 social benefits of play

So what are the standout benefits of play in terms of social development? Aside from the ability to cultivate stronger social skills over the long term, play helps kids:

Image: Eastland

So the evidence is clear: play is beneficial for a child’s physical growthcognitive developmentemotional health and socialisation skills. We hope you’ve enjoyed this series and now have a broader understanding of the influential role play has in every child’s life.

PlayOn! is a huge supporter of play. We create bespoke children’s playgrounds that you can find in shopping centres and public waiting areas all around Australia, with the goal of encouraging children to learn and develop – both mentally and physically – through play. You can find out more about what we’re doing for childhood play here.