Social Comfort Zones and Play

In my earlier days of teaching in Early Childhood I often found myself following kiddos around during play.  I would try to approach and interact, and they would either walk away or become upset if I tried to manipulate toys or engage with them.  What was I doing wrong? These same kiddos would sometimes approach me and put their hands on my face and seem like they wanted to interact closely and other times nothing.  Sound familiar to you as a parent or teacher?  Keep reading to learn about social comfort zones and four tips to create more interaction during shared activities!

Social Comfort Zones

We all have one.  They might even differ from person to person.  For example, I see my mom and I could literally smush my face up against hers.  The friend of a friend who came to dinner? Maybe a handshake (pre COVID) and a smile from more of a distance.  The space where your child or student is most comfortable enjoying your company is the social comfort zone.  Determining this zone will take some experimenting.  The zone is established when your child seems comfortable looking at you within that distance.  A natural place is usually around arm’s length while sitting in front of your child.  How do you know if it might be too close? Your child may look away from you or even become upset.  Try backing up slowly and see how your child responds! 

Four Ways to Interact

 It is so natural for us to try and interrupt a child’s activity with something we think might be more appropriate play or fun to us.  As teachers, we are so used to direct instruction, so I challenge you to follow your child or student’s lead of focus!  The four ways to try this is through (1) active listening (2) narrating (3) offering help (4) imitating actions.

Active Listening:  During this phase, position yourself in that social comfort zone, in front of your child so that you are able to share eye contact.  While you may not think the activity your child is engaging is typical or reinforcing for you (ie: maybe they’re swirling a scarf in front of their eyes over and over), you can interact by smiling, nodding, and watching.  Try mirroring actions with your own object (ie: scarf) and add in some comments as you do it.  For example, you are swirling your own scarf and saying “Swwwoossshhhhh!” while keeping yourself in your child’s social comfort zone.

Narrate:  I love this next phase!  As your child is playing you can begin to comment using noncomplex language such as single words or short phrases.  For example, your child picks up a toy dog you could say, “It’s a dog!” or “woof woof woof!”.  If your child touches the ear you could say, “That’s an ear!”  At this point you are still just commenting and not actually trying to manipulate their toy or add to it physically.  Keep yourself in front of your child so that when they do look up at you, they see your face!

Offer help:  While you watch and narrate, you can hand toys during play or even food during mealtimes.  If you know your child loves the banana during snack, position yourself in front of him and give him small pieces so that he needs you to give him more.  As you hand him the object or food, label it, “here’s the banana”, “here’s a blue block”.  Be excited!  If it seems like your child never really needs your help, then create the situation! They love that cookie, let’s put it in a Tupperware with a more difficult lid or small jar so they need to look up at you to initiate help.   

 Imitate actions: It’s natural for us to try and take turns with our child but instead of trying to take the toy from them, mirror them with a like toy.  Imitate what they are doing with their toy and add sounds or words your child might want to produce.  For example, they have a train.  Find another train and imitate the speed and motions and add in sounds like “choooooo choooooo!”, “big train goes chooooo choooo!” You might be thinking, “as soon as I get near my child and try to join, they become upset”. This is ok and will improve over time, reestablish that social comfort zone and focus on the active listening and narrating for a few days and slowly add in more of the phases.

While these phases may feel a bit unnatural at first, keep at it and try combining them as you become more comfortable.  You’ll learn when to back off a bit and start combining again. These techniques will teach your child that you are a partner in play and shared activities.

Action Steps on Paper

If you know me as a special education teacher, you know I love some action steps.  Once you feel more comfortable with the above strategies individually, try combining them in a shared activity.  Check out this chart here to see how you can write out the four phases of an activity tailored to your student or child! Happy zoning!


Gina Russell, B.S , M.Ed
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