What Toddler Social Development Looks Like: Ages 1 and 4 

Not sure if your child is on the right track for developing social skills? Be on the lookout for these important age-by-age milestones.

A group of preschool kids are playing indoors at a daycare center
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Whether you have an outgoing or shy child, socialization is an important part of their overall development. "[A child's] social development is tied to so many other areas," says Heather Wittenberg, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist specializing in child development.

Many parents start to see big leaps in social skills when children begin to walk around their first birthday, but they'll hit milestones throughout the toddler and preschool years. These milestones are important because they prepare your child for managing personal feelings, understanding others' feelings and needs, and interacting in a respectful and acceptable way.

Find out what to expect when it comes to your child's social development with this age-by-age guide.

1-Year-Old Social Development

Although parent-and-me programs are a great way to introduce your toddler to other kids, they'll pick up most social cues from you. At this age, you'll likely notice your baby is able to:

Begin basic communication. One-year-olds will predominantly point and vocalize to express their intentions, says Maria Kalpidou, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. It's important to interact with your toddler by acknowledging what they're looking at and pointing out other cool things around them.

Recognize familiar people. When your child sees grandma and grandpa, the babysitter, the pediatrician, and other familiar people, they'll begin to greet them with a smile (or a cry, depending on their mood!). "If the baby isn't paying attention to anyone around him, that's definitely a red flag," says Dr. Wittenberg. "You want him to be aware of what—and who—is around him, even if he cries when someone besides mom and dad walks into the room."

Interact with you. If your child hands you toys, this shows their willingness and ability to engage with others. This also sets the stage for lessons in taking turns, but don't expect too much on the sharing front just yet. "Back-and-forth playing is so important," says Dr. Wittenberg. "You want your child to show signs of independence but also to be keyed into appropriate social situations."

2-Year-Old Social Development

Around this age, your child is engaging more with those around them, but they still prefer to play with their primary caregivers. Right now, your child should be able to:

Start socializing. Children typically engage in parallel play at this age; this means that they play next to instead of with each other. "There isn't a lot of interaction with kids at this stage but it's still important to give your child time with other kids," says Dr. Wittenberg.

Defend territory. This is the age where kids start fighting over toys and declaring, "It's mine!" Sharing is, of course, very difficult at this age, as 2-year-olds can't see another child's perspective. "Their social behavior reflects egocentric thinking, and their behavior is guided by their desires," says Dr. Kalpidou. Model sharing and taking turns with your partner to help your child learn these important social actions.

Extend relationships to other people. Showing an interest in others is a key part of socialization, and kids will begin to seek interactions beyond those with their caregivers. Whether it's playing with grandparents or waving hello to the cashier at the market, your toddler is learning to enjoy the company of others. Although some kids aren't as outgoing around others, don't be so quick to label them as "shy." "Parents often see shyness as a negative, but it's normal for kids to be slow to warm up to people they don't know or don't see very often," explains Dr. Wittenberg. "Give your child time to adjust to new situations and follow her lead."

3-Year-Old Social Development

Your child will soon be starting preschool, where they'll socialize with peers and forge a few friendships. Right now, you'll probably notice that your child is able to:

Seek out others. Associative play begins at this age, so your child will start to look for other kids. "It's important at this stage to give your child plenty of opportunities to spend time with peers," advises Dr. Wittenberg. But your child will need help in navigating these social situations. Although they can understand some behavioral and safety rules, offer gentle reminders about sharing and taking turns.

Use their imagination. Dress-up, pretend play, and other creative activities will be part of playdates. "Your child will also make friends based on mutual interests," says Dr. Kalpidou. The concept of sharing can still be hard for 3-year-olds, but they can understand compromise and be respectful of others. "Kids this age are more likely to solve conflicts with friends in order to maintain their play and show more positive behaviors to one another," adds Dr. Kalpidou.

Start to understand emotions. Your child still learns best from you, so point out different feelings (happy, sad, scared) when watching TV or reading a book. This will help them become more aware of their own feelings as well as those of others. Also, kids might start to show empathy by offering hugs and kisses when needed.

4-Year-Old Social Development

Kindergarten is right around the corner, and your child will soon learn the ropes of socializing with new friends. At this age, they should be able to:

Show interest in being part of a group. Your child now enjoys playing with others and interacting with peers more. Experts say this is a good age to sign kids up for a sports team, such as soccer or T-ball. "Choose activities where there aren't too many rules or restrictions," suggests Dr. Wittenberg. "If not, it can ruin the experience for them and they'll never want to play again."

Share and cooperate more with others. There will still be tugs-of-war over toys, but your child can understand the concept of sharing and waiting their turn. "There is an increased awareness of other people's minds, which allows children to develop negotiation skills, resolve conflicts verbally, monitor the emotional state of a group, and regulate other children's behavior," says Dr. Kalpidou.

Be physically affectionate. By now, your little one is offering plenty more hugs and kisses to you and showing affection toward family and friends, especially when seeing them in distress. "Kids this age engage in more pro-social behaviors, such as sharing and expressing sympathy," says Dr. Kalpidou.

Exert more independence. You want your child to be more independent, but they often pick the worst times to do things their way, such as insisting on dressing themselves when you're running late. Still, being confident and comfortable in their own abilities is an important part of successfully socializing, especially as they get older.

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