Early Childhood Emotional and Social Development: Social Connections
Angela Oswalt, MSW
As young children leave toddlerhood behind, they also begin to mature in their ability to interact with others socially. As discussed in the article on Infant Sensorimotor development, a baby's main social need and developmental task is bonding and connecting with primary caregivers. In contrast, young children are starting to branch out and to create other social relationships.
When interacting with other children their age, such as peers at daycare or preschool, Sensorimotor children engage in parallel play. In parallel play, children play beside each other without truly interacting with each other. For example, Jimmy plays with his blocks and builds his structure independently while sitting by Jane, who is creating her own block tower.
During the Preoperational stage, young children begin to play more cooperatively. In cooperative play, young children engage in the same activity in a small group. Often, these first forms of cooperative play include pretend or symbolic play. For example, Jane and Jackie may "play house" together and assign one child to be the mother and the other to be the baby. Pretend play begins as early as toddlerhood and then peaks for the majority of young children at ages 4 and 5 years.
As young children continue to develop socially with peers, they often enter a stage of rough and tumble play which includes running, racing, climbing, or competitive games. Often, this is the stage when social skills such as learning to take turns and follow simple group rules and norms are practiced.
Young children in the Preoperational stage often identify friends at the park or at daycare; however, "friendship" is still a very concrete, basic relationship. At this stage of social development, friendship usually means sharing toys and having fun playing together. Friendship at this age does not have the associated qualities of empathy and support that older children, adolescents, and adults develop.
During the Preoperational stage, young children are also developing socially inside the family. Families typically give young children the opportunity to interact with a variety of people in a range of roles. Today's families take on many different forms. Young children can be raised in nuclear families, with two opposite sex biological parents and sometimes one or more siblings. Children are also commonly raised in "blended" families, spending time with both parents in different homes, perhaps with step-parents and half- or step-siblings. Some young children grow up with an extended family, living with or spending lots of time with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Still others grow up in small clusters, spending most of the time with a single parent, and perhaps one or more siblings. Some children may be adopted into a nuclear, blended, or extended families. Still others are raised with two homosexual parents alone or with other biological or adopted siblings.