Supporting and Stimulating Children’s Social Skills Through Play – Teaching in Preschool

This systematic review summarises research which can increase preschool teachers’ understanding of how they can support and stimulate children’s social skills through play. In this way, the review gives guidance to preschool teachers in consciously working to achieve the goals of the Swedish Curriculum for the Preschool, i.e. the framework of all teaching in preschools. We have chosen to discuss preschool teachers, but we hope that the review will also be of interest to other members of the working team.

Through our systematic review, we also hope to contribute to improved integration of research results into preschool practice, and the review thus ties into the Swedish Education Act’s wording of how preschool education shall have a scientific foundation. The review aims to answer the following questions:

  • In what ways do preschool teachers support and stimulate children’s social skills through play?
  • What characterises preschool teachers’ actions which support and stimulate children’s social skills through play?

In the review, we compile the results of fifteen scientific studies which have been systematically selected by researchers following extensive literature searches in national and international research databases.

In what ways do preschool teachers support and stimulate children’s social skills through play?

The studies describe a multitude of actions which preschool teachers take to support and stimulate children’s social skills through play. The studies include examples of play initiated by adults as well as play initiated by children. It is clear that in all cases, the preschool teachers set the conditions of the play and exercise leadership in relation to the play.  Preschool teachers thus have an important role in exercising leadership and deciding to support and stimulate children’s social skills through play. They can do this in a number of ways.

Preschool teachers’ actions which support and stimulate children’s play

The systematic review divides preschool teachers’ actions in the studies into three categories: stage managing, participating, and observing and reflecting.

The stage managing category includes preschool teachers planning and preparing, and thus creating the conditions for children’s play by arranging environments, and providing time and space which encourages play.

The participation category includes preschool teachers participating through presence, guidance, and mediation in play. Through their presence, preschool teachers can for example communicate and show various ideas for moving the play forward. Guidance includes stimulating play when it risks being derailed or losing steam, by showing strategies for how children can gain access to play in various ways, for example by suggesting a new role in the play. In order to support the play, preschool teachers can also act as mediators, through active intervention, in order to solve problems and conflicts regarding materials, toys, roles etc.

In the observing and reflecting category, preschool teachers derive knowledge from their observations and documentation, which they can then base their conscious use of play on. The preschool teachers observe individual children and the group as a whole, to initiate play which strengthens these children’s social skills and ability to participate in play. Observation and reflection thus loops back to the stage managing category, and to creating good conditions for play.

What characterises preschool teachers’ actions which support and stimulate children’s social skills through play?

The results of the systematic review show that attentiveness and responsiveness are common qualities in the actions which support and stimulate children’s social skills through play. This means that the preschool teacher is attentive to the children’s perspectives, needs, and interests, and that they respond by adapting the teaching accordingly.

Attentiveness and responsiveness must characterise the teaching

It is in other words crucial for the preschool teachers’ actions to be characterised by attentiveness and responsiveness, and this applies to all categories of actions and thus all parts of the teaching, from the stage managing of the play by planning and organising, to participating in the play, to observing the play and reflecting on one’s observations. Observation and reflection for example allows preschool teachers to act in an attentive and responsive way with regard to children’s needs and interests when creating inspiring and inclusive play environments.

The importance of attentiveness and responsiveness means that the preschool teacher, when stage managing the children’s play, needs to consider the children’s perspectives and interests – attentive directing – and plan to create space for play to develop according to children’s initiatives.

Preschool teachers’ actions which do not sufficiently take children’s perspectives, needs, and interests into consideration, can result in play which entails negative social interaction between the children, or which risks disrupting or shutting down the ongoing play.

Use of results

The studies included in the systematic review are based on researchers’ observations and analyses of play situations in preschools with preschool teachers and children, in which preschool teachers support and stimulate children’s social skills through play. These are play situations that preschool teachers may recognise. The researcher analyses put the events into words and explain them using various concepts and themes. This research-based knowledge is intended to give preschool teachers valuable insights and ideas for developing their teaching.

What studies are included in this systematic review?

Out of 9,662 search hits, we have reviewed 201 full-text studies. Of these, 15 studies were deemed relevant for answering the review’s questions. These studies concern how preschool teachers can support and stimulate children’s social skills through play. It is important to note that this is not a compilation which covers all research about children’s play in preschool. For a study to be included in the review, it must concern how preschool teachers support and stimulate children’s social skills through play. It must in other words examine three components:

  • a play situation
  • children’s social skills
  • what preschool teachers do.

For example, this excludes studies which are aimed at children’s social skills in play situations but which do not cover the actions of the preschool teachers. One important reason for having these strict selection criteria is that the studies must be similar enough that it is possible to create a synthesis of their results.

When selecting the studies, it emerged that there is a relatively small number of studies which describe the roles of the preschool teachers. This means that our search results included a fairly large number of studies concerning children’s social skills in play situations, but significantly fewer which also examined what preschool teachers do to stimulate the playing. This has highlighted a need for more research focusing on preschool teachers’ actions.

For further information, please contact

Karolina Fredriksson
Researcher/Project Manager
tel: +46 8 523 29 806
karolina.fredriksson@skolfi.se