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Mud Puddles, Skinned Knees, and Social Skills 

Early summer is a time of renewal, but as most parents know, it is also a time of mud puddles, grass stains, and skinned knees. This messiness is an important part of learning and exploring for young children. (See this post on messy play: School Readiness: Nature.)   

Sometimes the messiness of life is jumping in a mud puddle, and sometimes it’s the rupture and repair process that is part of relationships. Both are valuable for learning when guided by thoughtful adults. It can be easy to lose sight of the big picture when you are trying to find extra clothes that fit your child or comforting one who is crying after getting into an argument with a friend. But all these little efforts lead to a curious, competent, and compassionate person, who is not just ready for school but ready for life. 

In the past two years, children have had fewer social interactions with unfamiliar people, with most interactions limited to immediate family members and people in their classrooms. They haven’t practiced the social skills needed to make new friends, such as: 

  • Controlling impulses when heightened emotionally. 
  • Negotiating competing ideas. 
  • Advocating for themselves. 

The good news is that children can still learn these skills, but it will be messy. Children will get upset. They will make mistakes. And perhaps, now more than ever, they may act in ways that seem below their age or maturity level. It’s never a good idea to compare siblings, but this is especially the case during a pandemic. Social skills don’t mature on their own; they mature through social interaction. 

Here are some ideas for getting started in building social skills, specifically for children ages 2 to 7. This list may help keep your expectations realistic as your child learns (or regains) these social skills. As always, you will have to adapt these ideas for your own child or children: 

  • Schedule short playdates – approximately 30-45 minutes in length. If children haven’t had playdates in the past two years, they may be out of practice being flexible with another child’s ideas, and a shorter span of play will be more manageable for them. 
    • Start with one other child, so as not to overwhelm your child. 
    • Meet at a park, so no one has to share their space or toys. Sharing can be hard for young children, and expecting this too quickly will likely end in a meltdown. 
    • Have an obvious ending (e.g., “We’ll play until your big sister gets home,” or, “When Dad texts to let us know dinner is ready, we will head home”). Communicating a clear end point helps a child transition. They may get a little upset if they are having fun, but they also have some understanding of the schedule.  
  • As your child enjoys and feels more comfortable during playdates, make the playdates longer or at someone’s house. 
    • Plan which toys the child is willing to share, and keep others out of sight. 
    • If your child is visiting another home, they should only bring one or two items that need to be gathered up, in case they do have a meltdown. 
    • Have a comfort item ready (e.g., a stuffed animal in the car). This can help soothe them if the playdate gets emotional. 
  • When your child does get upset: 
    • Name their emotions (e.g., “You’re mad”). 
    • Name what the problem is, or ask if they can tell you (e.g., “You’re pulling on the doll. It looks like you want to use it, too”). 
    • Ask for a solution (e.g., “Should we bring out some more dolls?”). 
      • This process of working through strong emotions helps a child calm down. It also allows them to practice the skills of identifying a problem and solution. These tools will be needed for future success in social situations. 

Lastly, take a breath. Your child will make mistakes. They will have meltdowns. But with support from you, they will slowly learn how to control their impulses and negotiate with others. When an infant is learning to walk, they mostly fall down. So too, when a child learns to interact with peers, there will be strong emotions. Summer brings rain and mud, but it also brings flowers. The messiness of social interactions will bring friendships. 

To learn more about St. David’s Center’s Early Childhood Education program, go to 



Mike Huber, MAEd is the Curriculum Specialist for Early Childhood Education at St. David’s Center. He is the author of Inclusion Includes Us: Building Bridges and Removing Barriers in Early Childhood(Redleaf Press 2022) and Embracing Rough and Tumble Play: Teaching with the Body in Mind (Redleaf Press, 2016), as well as six picture books including The Amazing Erik (Redleaf Lane, 2014). He is the co-host of the podcast, Teaching with the Body in Mind, and a frequent guest on That Early Childhood Nerd.

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