Expert Opinion

What is typical for toddler and preschool social development?

Socialisation is an important aspect of child development – it is linked with so many other areas of their development because children learn through play and socialising with others. Giving your child many opportunities to interact with other children means they’re getting exposed to new information regularly, which helps their brain continue to expand during this period of rapid brain growth.

So how do play and social skills develop? At around 18 months, toddlers start engaging in parallel play, this is when they’re playing near another child but engaging in separate, non-interactive play. While they are engaging more with those around them, parents are still preferred.

Some of the skills you’ll notice in your toddler include forming connections with others outside of the family via their parallel play. It might look like they don’t care whether the other child is nearby, but their presence is key to this stage and their development – they share interests and observe each other. And if you’ve ever tried separating two toddlers engaged in parallel play, you will see this type of interaction from a distance is very important to them! They’re also learning how to defend their territory – you’ll notice fights over toys and a very ‘egocentric’ theme to their social behaviour.

Now that your child is interested in others, they’ll likely be waving hello to others and probably be a little more independent (and defiant!). Chasey-type games are common for toddlers – they’re fun and are not too socially taxing.

However, by 3-4 years, kids start to develop a more advanced way of socialising, called Associative Play. 

Children in this stage play together in the same game/activity but do not necessarily work together. Interactions take shape through talking, borrowing and taking turns with toys, but each child acts alone. Your child will start to show concern and affection for others without you prompting them to do so, and you’ll see them start to mimic others which shows they’re observing and learning from their environment. Turn-taking becomes more prominent now, and your pre-schooler enjoys routines and helping around the house.

Do you have any concerns about your child’s play or social development? Having worked with families for over 20 years, particularly in the area of neurodiversity, if you have any concerns that your toddler or pre-schooler is not meeting their age expectations for social development, I encourage you to speak with your doctor or paediatrician. Often a slight delay in one area of development is no cause for concern, but of course, as a parent, this is hard to gauge and seeking a professional’s opinion will provide peace of mind or an action plan to address your child’s developmental needs.

So, you can see that play is absolutely essential for your toddlers and pre-schoolers to develop adequate social skills. The best thing you can do is allow your child the opportunity to practice and develop these skills through their interactions with others – that might be at childcare, play dates or on outings where they are meeting new children. Regardless, facilitating play and social opportunities for your toddler or pre-schooler will set them up for success moving forward.

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.
Photo by Mikhail Nilov