Play with parents is a key role in the early social development of their child.

Socializing is an important part of life and it’s good to start kids young. By playing and interacting with other people, children learn how to make friends and to relate to others. This is particularly important as young children are getting ready to begin preschool. Helping a child socialize early will ease this transition and set them up for success down the road.

As toddlers grow, they are increasingly interested in the world around them. However, they still see things in terms of how they relate to them. This is where parent interaction and socialization is vital. Imaginative play has an especially important role for helping young children begin to socialize, and in many cases, parents are a child’s first playmates.

It’s important for parents to remember that play, besides being a great opportunity for sharing quality time, teaches children the best ways to interact with others. For example, as children learn what makes their parents laugh, they can then apply that to other social settings. As a child learns to speak and communicate, they discover other people and how to elicit reactions from them. This all helps children relate to the world around them.

Additionally, play is key in helping a child learn motor and language skills. Through play, kids learn to be creative and to manipulate objects in different ways. Take a puzzle for example — in putting the pieces together the child is learning how to move objects into different spaces in order to create something. Not only does this help a child better understand shapes, but it also helps them consider how smaller objects fit together to make a bigger picture.

While parental play is key, it’s also essential for a child to socialize with other kids their age. It’s important that parents expose toddlers to new people because this replicates the school experience and will make it easier for kids to enter the classroom and make friends. Furthermore, playing with other children allows a child to individuate from parents and develop their own personality. Much of socialization occurs through trial and error, and playing with other kids helps a child learn what does and does not work as they learn to read social cues such as facial expressions and tone of voice.

Finally, play dates are also important for addressing anxiety linked to separating from parents. When children are in settings away from their parents, they will learn that they can leave their parents for a few hours and they will always come back. This is particularly helpful in preparing kids to go to school on their own each day.

Kristin J. Carothers, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD and disruptive behavior disorders in children and adolescents. Dr. Carothers is a member of the New York based Child Mind Institute and previously worked with the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York Presbyterian at the Columbia University Medical Center. She received her doctorate in clinical child psychology from DePaul University, completed her pre-doctoral internship at Columbia University Medical Center, and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the St. John’s University PARTNERS Program.