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Social development and your child under six

When families come to Norwood Child and Family Resource Centre, one of the main goals they have for their children is to develop socially and be able to play well with others. This is after all, one of the most important aspects of being able to grow and thrive as a healthy citizen of the world! So let's explore how you -- as the parent or primary caregiver -- can set the stage for success in your child’s social development because you are your child's first and most important teacher.


Children are not born with any social skills, or the ability to form and maintain relationships with other human beings. However, social development begins the moment that your child is born: from the first time you hold them, healthy attachments that influence social development and brain architecture begin forming. Around 90% of the brain's architecture is formed by age five; the social interactions experienced in this period heavily influence adult social skills and your child's future relationships.

There are five key areas that we can have significant influence on in young children. These are:

  • relationship building,

  • stages of social development

  • social behaviors and social cues

  • sharing and taking turns

  • isolation and technology

Relationship Building

How can you as a caregiver help your child develop socially? We know that having a strong, healthy, and positive self-image helps a child progress through the stages of social development toward creating and maintaining social relationships. Caregivers can help children build a positive self-image through 'serve and return' (back and forth) interactions like comforting them when they cry, smiling at them, making eye contact while speaking to them, and encouraging them when they try something new. Children begin to build their self-image based on how they are welcomed and accepted by others -- including their own parents!

Providing opportunities to play with peers is also an effective way to help children build relationships and build a positive self-image.

The caregiver is supporting the child by remaining physically close, making eye contact and verbally encouraging her to test her limits. When a child feels encouraged, they see themselves as strong and capable.

Stages of Social Development

Children progress through distinct stages of social development that begin in infanthood, starting with building trust and secure attachments and moving towards building independence as toddlers and making their own choices during the pre-school years. As children progress through the various stages of play, they are refining their social skills and learning to:

  • Take turns (using things alternately with others)

  • Empathize with others (the ability to put themselves into someone else’s shoes)

  • Negotiate (reach an agreement or compromise with others)

  • Cooperate with others (the ability to work with others toward a common goal)

  • Accept differences (understand that people and things may not be the same all the time)

Children can use play to help them move confidently through the stages of social development.

Children can use play to help them move confidently through the stages of social development.

Social Behaviors and Social Cues

Having a certain degree of social awareness is critical to functioning well in our communities. Citizens need to be able to see and empathize with perspectives that differ from their own to be able to create and sustain healthy and diverse communities.

Parents/caregivers can help build children’s social awareness through modelling appropriate behaviors in social settings, guiding children’s understanding of personal boundaries and how each person may be different. If your child notices the adults around them accepting each other regardless of differences, they will carry on and echo that same behavior. Parents and caregivers should also provide opportunities to be around others so children can practice their budding social skills. These opportunities can range from organized sport opportunities to spending time at local parks and playgrounds. Norwood Child and Family Resource Centre offers a wide range of children’s activities and parent and child drop-in programs, check out Norwood’s Programs and Services Guide for upcoming opportunities.

Did you know that most human communication happens without words?

Social cues are how we express ourselves without words: how we use facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. Social cues help guide our interactions with others: being able to read social cues helps us interpret other people's emotions and understand different situations.

Sometimes being able to read social cues occurs naturally, and sometimes it has to be taught. In either case, it is an important skill because most of human communication is non-verbal.

You can help your child learn to interpret social cues by:

  • Practicing: notice facial expressions with your child “that person is frowning, maybe they are feeling sad.” “What makes you feel sad, happy, frustrated? Etc.

  • Practice eye contact when appropriate: being on the same physical level when having a conversation with someone.

  • Role playing different situations: role play problem solving situations with your child for example, how to ask for a turn with a favorite toy.

Being able to identify and interpret social cues leads to more successful communication, which in turn builds self-confidence. Being able to read social cues in context allows us to interpret the intentions of others.

Children can use play to help them move confidently through the stages of social development.

These children are joyfully making silly and scary faces while playing together.

Sharing vs Turn-Taking

Sharing and turn-taking may seem like the same skill, but they are fundamentally different. When a child decides to share, they share a resource without the expectation that they will be getting any of that resource back (giving another person a piece of my candy is sharing). Sharing is a very sophisticated skill and is not easily understood or mastered by young children.

Turn-taking on the other hand is a more developmentally appropriate skill for very young children. Turn-taking follows a give-and-take pattern: for example, a child can play with a toy car and when they are ready, they can give the toy car to a peer to play with. When we take turns, we understand that once something is given up, it may be returned, or our turn will come around again. Turn-taking involves being able to wait for a chance to use the desired toy.

Isolation and Technology

Human beings are wired to interact with others. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many people discovered how important our natural support systems (the people we rely on in our everyday life for support) are. Most of us experienced, to varying degrees, feelings of isolation and renewed appreciation for how important a healthy social life is. The way we are connected to others, especially in our early years, impacts the way our brain develops. It has an impact on higher level brain functioning such as planning, thought, and the ability to form relationships. It is common in Canada to turn to technology to stay connected to others both at home and around the world, and technology can be a useful tool for people to stay connected to each other. However, technology is not a replacement for person-to-person interaction.

Technology can become detrimental. Have you ever found yourself scrolling through Facebook or Tik Tok videos just to realize that you have been scrolling for more than hour? Have you handed your toddler your phone to watch a short video while you wait in line at the supermarket, then suddenly a half an hour has gone by and they are still watching? It happens to all of us!

Caregivers should monitor the quality and length of screen time because too much screen time can impact a child's long-term capacity to develop social awareness, communicate with others, and sustain relationships. Relying on technology too much can lead to physical problems with eyesight, sleep, trouble paying attention, and sedentary lifestyles. When screen time becomes the norm for childhood entertainment, social development is negatively impacted because children are not playing with friends and practicing human-to-human social skills.

Did you know that the Canadian 24-hour Movement Guidelines for the Early Years recommends less than one hour a day of sedentary screen time for children between one and four years old, and that for babies under one year old no amount of screen time is deemed appropriate?

Opportunities for physical play and social development abound even in our sometimes-harsh Alberta climate!

Remember, YOU are your child’s first and most important teacher! Anytime that a caregiver takes the time to intentionally engage with a child in or demonstrates social skills by modelling appropriate social skills and reactions, they are helping influence healthy social development!


Follow along with us on Facebook or Instagram and learn all about optimal development for your own child or any children you interact with. Or, you can subscribe to have the blog posts delivered to your email inbox via our monthly e-newsletter, which also provides information on upcoming parenting classes, parent and child drop-in play groups, and special events at Norwood Centre.


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