Social skills

Social skills are the tools we use to communicate with others and build social relationships. These social skills can be expressed verbally (for example: through speech) and non-verbally (for example: through body language). Many different skills come under the heading of ‘social skills’, these include: the ability to turn take and the ability to adapt language use to match the setting. Please see below for further information. 

This is a guide to how we expect children to develop their social skills. All children develop at different rates so if you are worried then please see our referral guide to check if you need to make a referral.



3-12 months

  • Copies facial expressions e.g. sticking out tongue
  • Senses emotions voices and responds differently e.g. laughs, goes quiet
  • Cries in different ways to express needs
  • Enjoys action songs and rhymes
  • Tries to copy adult speech and lip movement
  • Take turns in ‘conversation’ by babbling


12-24 months

  • Enjoys being with familiar adults
  • Simple pretend play
  • Will play alone for most of the time but likes to be near a familiar adult
  • Developing independence
  • By 2 years, pretend play develops with using toys e.g. feeding the doll, driving a car
  • Can get frustrated if not understood – can lead to tantrums
  • Able to follow communication partner’s body language e.g. eye movement, gesture, and pointing


2-3 years

  • Can hold a conversation but will jump in between different topics
  • Is becoming more interested in other people’s play and will join in
  • Expresses emotions with words and not just actions


3-4 years

  • Understands turn taking in activities and sharing with adults and peers
  • Will initiate conversation
  • Enjoys playing with other children
  • Able to express disagreement with adults and peers using words and not just actions




4-5 years

  • Will choose own friends
  • Can plan construction and pretend play e.g. building a tower from Lego, playing ‘house’’ or ‘doctors’
  • Can take turns appropriately in longer conversations
  • Will use language for a variety of purposes e.g. to gain information, negotiate, discuss feelings/emotions, and to give own opinion

5-7 years

  • Takes turns appropriately in small groups
  • Can stay on one topic but can be easily prompted to move on if needed
  • Starting to copy other’s language and becoming more aware of language around them e.g. copies swear words or uses “cool”, “yeah right”
  • Will use and experiment with different styles of talking with different people

7-9 years

  • Uses formal language when appropriate to do so e.g. showing a visitor around school
  • Developing understanding of conversational rules e.g. look at listener to judge feedback, give more detail if needed
  • Uses tone of voice and natural gesture to stress and make a point

9-11 years

  • Can use different language depending on who they are talking to e.g. Formal style with the headteacher, relaxed and informal with family, and ‘cool’ language with friends 
  • Communicates successfully by sharing ideas and information, will give and receive advice, and offers and takes notice of opinions
  • Realises when people don’t fully understand and will try to help them


References; Bowen, C (1998), Grunwell, P (1997)


Games to develop social skills

1. Roll the Ball

Take turns to roll the ball to each other, either between two people or a small group. Children learn to take turns and strengthen motor movement

2. Virtual Playtime

Spend time together with family and friends over video to support turn taking, looking for feedback, sharing and receiving information. Coming up with new ways to spend time together increases problem-solving abilities, which adds to a set of vital social skills

3. Emotion Charades

Emotion charades involves writing different emotions on strips of paper. Your child picks one out of a hat or bucket. Then, they must try to act out that emotion. This helps children identify and express a variety of emotions

4. Topic Game

Choose a topic and name things that fit into that category using each letter of the alphabet. For example, if you choose animals, you might come up with:

  • A: Aardvark
  • B: Baboon
  • C: Chicken

The topic game teaches kids to stay on one topic until the activity is complete. It also helps them make language connections.

5. Improvisational Stories

Place cards with pictures or words face down. The child picks three of these cards, and they must include these objects or topics in the story they tell. You can use this activity in a small group where children take turns adding to the story, or one child can tell you their own story.

6. Simon Says

Simon Says builds social skills for kids' self-control, attention and listening, and impulse control as they copy their peers' movements and follow instructions.

7. Playing with Characters

Use stuffed animals or dolls to interact and pretend play. This teaches your child to recognise behaviours and feelings. They can practice their social skills through the toys in an imaginary, low-risk environment, without worrying about any hurt feelings.

8. Play Pretend

Pretend to be someone or something else e.g. taking the role of parents in ‘house’ or become a doctor, teacher, shop keeper. Each situation allows your child to explore different social skills activities

9. Decision-Making Games

Use strategy games or activities as simple as sorting and matching to help your child learns persistence, thoughtfulness, and cooperation with others.

10. Building Game

In a small group set a building task e.g. a tower. They must communicate, take turns, and understand each other to bring their creation to life.

11. Team Sports

Team sports show kids how to work together toward a common goal and keep their focus on the game. They also learn to recognise emotions, and react appropriately e.g., when someone is hurt, or they win or lose a game

12. Productive Debate

This works well for older children as they learn to manage emotions and work on positive expression, even in challenging situations. They learn how to have difficult conversations calmly, without turning them into an argument or trying to insult the other person.

13. Scavenger Hunts

During scavenger hunts, children work together to find objects or get a prize at the end of the activity. By working toward their goal, they learn teamwork, organisation, and positive decision-making. They can choose to split up, move as a group, and collaborate to reach the end of the game, which develops their problem-solving skills.

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