Scéalta – The Early Childhood Ireland Blog

< Back to Blog

Social Skills Versus Academic Skills – Why the Conflict?

Carol Duffy


Tuesday 25 June 2019

Recently we had a call to the Early Childhood Ireland office. A journalist was writing a piece on the importance of developing social skills over academic skills at the preschool stage, and wondered if we had a comment. As I played with the reply in my head, I quickly recognised the complexities of providing an answer that does justice to our youngest children’s intelligence, knowledge, and capacity for learning. How in a few words do you discuss the concept that in the early years social and academic skills can be intrinsically linked through play, rather than valued one over the other.  So often children’s learning is discussed in a play versus academic model rather than being seen in a holistic manner where, in fact, one supports the other. The old saying “he’s not very clever but he is very good with his hands” obviously never considered that it was the brain that moved the hands, provided the creativity and all the other skills that made the handiwork so good.  One’s interpretation or definition of social and academic skills can frame one’s perception of development and learning. Social skills and emotional interactions of children at play are often observed without reflection on the considerable cognitive knowledge that underpins it. I once watched a 32-month-old child turn and offer a hand to a younger child to help her down a muddy slope. I was impressed at her empathy and the cognitive reasoning that instantaneously occurred as she felt the give in the mud under her feet and immediately deduced that the new younger child to the playgroup might need a hand.


Where does “academic” learning start? Let’s consider some examples I have observed over the years.

Is the adult counting the stairs with the toddler on their way to bed supporting the relationship or the concept of number?

Is the bedtime story a warm social experience or the earliest introduction to academics: observation, literacy, concentration, language, mathematical reasoning and concept formation?  

What about the child displaying incredible social skills in organising their 3-year-old peers in a game of house building in the garden, mentally planning and designing the build, developing understanding of size and shape, while also articulating in-depth funds of knowledge of building terminology, gained from observations and experiences with builder dad.


Roles, professions, and life experiences are consistently replicated by very young children in their play. Children digging in a sand pit to fill the buckets at either side of an oversized scales absorb the realities of cause and effect. When I heard them shout out “That’s enough, it’s balanced”, I knew that through their play they were gaining mathematical terms and concepts. In all these scenarios accompanying the recognisable social learning and skills are cognitive academic qualities like those previously mentioned. I am reminded of the four-year-old beekeeper who taught her teacher in-depth scientific information about beekeeping as they played in the summer garden. Knowing herself as a beekeeper, the child brought her beekeeper suit and her considerable knowledge into the playgroup to teach her friends what her grandparents had taught her.  

Parental concerns for their children’s education are ever present.  Throughout the years, new concepts and models of education have gained favour. What remains constant however, is children’s innate curiosity to learn about themselves, their families, and the world around them. Children learn in many different ways. Surely the role of adults is to understand and appreciate how our individual children learn, and support them in their endeavours.  Play is universal in nature and for centuries upon centuries it has been how humans have passed on skills, and how young children have become educated in the ways of the world. It seems demeaning to recognise it only as a tool for developing social skills and thus bypass the intense cognitive and early academic elements it helps build. For me, it is play all the way. As a mother, grandmother, and early years educator, I have seen the benefits of a playful childhood across generations and experienced first-hand the foundational early education experiences it provided.

So next time you see children deep in play, consider all the things they have learnt socially and cognitively that makes such play possible.

1 comments Comments

One Response

  1. Denise Collins says:

    I always enjoy hearing your views. I wholeheartedly agree with you and find myself every September having this conversation with new parents.

Leave a Reply

Please Log In to comment:

Mud kitchens(1) outdoor space(3) Magic(1) linc(1) Settling in(2) SPICE Framework(1) Prexit(1) ReCreate(2) community(5) conversations(1) Academics(1) respect(4) Fabric(1) Liz Kerrins(1) Graduation(1) First 5 strategy(1) Ariana Pucci(1) AIM(2) science week(2) Department of Children and Youth Affairs(2) Tuscan Approach(2) National Awards 2018(2) Rising to the Challenge(2) Identity(4) Policy and Implementation Panel(1) Home Corner(1) Well-Being(6) Quality(3) Halloween(2) educarer(1) Sweets(1) Our Little Seed(1) Meet the Members(1) Reggio Emilia(1) Queues(1) Trade union(1) Exploring(1) Workforce(1) Buddies(1) Early Childhood Ireland National Awards(1) Motor neuron disease(1) PIP(1) Socioemotional development(1) Smiles(1) Supernanny(1) Traditions(2) Social Skills(1) dogs(1) science(3) Recycling(2) Early Years Educators(1) Toby Bears Camping Trip(1) CPD(1) Relaxation(1) Inter-generational learning(1) Pobal(1) blog(28) Self Help Skills(1) DCYA(4) Flowers(1) Early Childhood Ireland’s National Early Childhood Research Conference 2019(1) Mathematicians(1) Margy Whalley(1) Exercise(1) Primary School(2) Care-giving routines(1) Professionalisation(4) Easter(1) Early Childhood Care and Education(1) Inter-generational(1) friendships(1) Special Needs Assistants(1) UN Sustainable Development Goals(1) Laugh(1) education(2) MA(1) Potential(1) Scéalta Blog(79) under 3's(3) Budget 2019(2) routine(2) risk assessment(1) Dr Mary O'Kane(1) Irish Early Years Research & Practice Seminar 2018(1) Visitors(1) development(8) ECCE(6) Story(1) Lego(2) Partnership with Families Innovation Award(1) UN(1) Music(3) Craft(1) Engineering Ireland(1) Japan(1) The Lullaby Book(1) Autism(3) Mayo(1) interacting(2) Investment(1) Exit interview(1) Iraq(1) Communicating(1) Body Language(1) Educators(1) Grief(1) Communications(1) Leargas(1) Universal Design(2) Aistear Siolta Practice Guide(1) Sustainable(1) Self-regulation(1) Emergent Curriculum(1) Learning Stories Award(3) Cork Institute of Technology(1) Xbox(1) Siolta blog(2) San Minia(1) Winter(1) worries(1) animals(2) Blocks(1) Traffic Lights(1) Thank you(1) Engineering(2) Vietnam(1) bonds(1) Family(1) Imagination(3) Síolta QAP(1) Jenga(1) Patterns(1) Trigonometry(1) Maria Montessori(1) Jillian van Turnhout(1) Gratitude(1) Time Out(1) Change(1) MECPI(1) TOY Programme(1) Childhood(1) Spiders(1) Interaction(1) Minister for Children and Youth Affairs(1) Degree(1) Mental Health(3) Albert Einstein(1) Limerick(1) Inclusion(3) Self-Esteem(1) Capable(1) learning(15) Routines(1) Oireachtas(1) Environment(2) Pobal sector profile(1) ears(1) The Jelly King(1) Playdough(1) listen(1) Art(6) Early Years(1) Maths Week Ireland(1) New Appointments(1) Aldo Fortunati(4) preschool(2) Vertical grouping(1) outdoor play(6) University(1) Teamwork(1) Graduate(1) Sport(1) Training(2) AsIAm(1) Appreciation(1) Positivity(1) NAEYC(1) Online(1) Learning Story Awards(1) emotions(2) Irish(1) Pen green(1) play(29) Feeding(1) Map(1) Eritrea(1) Children's Research Network(1) Childcare(2) grandchild(1) Light table(1) risk(2) scéalta(25) Research Seminar(1) Snacks(1) Inspirational(2) Laughter(1) role playing(1) Obesity(1) Love(2) EECERA 2016(1) Biting(1) documentation(2) outdoors(3) Bereavement(1) Children's Rights(1) Thanks(1) Deirdre Rogers(1) Book Club(2) Glitter(2) GDPR(1) Through the looking glass(1) Awards 2019(1) Independence(1) Educator of the Year Award(3) Annual Conference 2019(1) Orla Kenny(1) Kerry(1) meals(3) Fantasy play(1) General Data Protection Regulation(1) Penguins(1) Weather(1) STEM(2) Mindfulness(2) early childhood educator(1) Academic Skills(1) Shapes(1) Twitter(1) Adoption(1) research(6) Educator Award - Leader in Practice(1) Interactions(1) Workplace well-being(1) Identity and Belonging(3) Workplace Relations(3) Arlene Forster(1) Window(1) Early Learning and Care(1) Brain(1) NCCA(2) Nonverbal(1) Awards(2) RIE philosphy(1) Sculptures(1) Celebrations(4) Impact(1) National Holiday(1) eating(1) Meal time(1) Confident(1) Wrapping paper(1) Builders(1) planning(1) Annual Conference 2017(2) Nutrition(1) Scents(1) Research Conference 2019(1) reading(4) Facebook(1) Buddy Bench(1) early years research(1) Treasure(1) Christmas Creativity(2) Kilkenny(1) Decision Making(1) Cognitive development(1) Design(1) Giraffe(2) experience(1) Malaguzzi(1) babies(6) National Pyjama Day(1) EM Standing(1) overhear(1) Interests(1) Treasure Chest(1) Creativity(4) transitions(9) College(1) Frosty the Snowman(1) Research and Professional Learning(1) Dance(1) emotional environment(1) parents(5) Mealtimes(1) Arts(1) Plastic(1) food(1) Horizon 2020(1) Mantra(1) Valentine's Day(3) Games(1) journey(1) Event Guide(1) Cork(1) Technology(2) Policy(2) Equality & Inclusion Guidelines Training(1) Learning Story(1) Role play(1) Gardening(1) Playschool(1) Snakes(1) Sociodramatic play(1) ECEC(1) Engineers Week(2) Kids Own(1) Reggio Children Network(1) Educator - Leader in Practice Award(1) Belonging(3) Childcare Barometer 2018(1) Favouritism(1) Mount Everest(1) Inspired Practice Award(5) dining experiences(1) Performing(1) Montessori & Early Childhood Professionals Ireland(1) maternity health(1) Yoga(1) supportive environments(1) Ceremony(1) National Bereaved Children's Awareness Week(1) Learning Stories(7) Titles(1) Wonder(1) play stories(1) St. Patrick's Day(1) Rituals(1) Maynooth(1) child-centred approach(1) Sequins(1) Arithmetic(1) Certificate(1) Affordability(1) Irish Childhood Bereavement Network(1) Celebrate(1) Maths(4) Exclusion(1) Names(1) National Awards 2019(1) Syria(1) Norway(2) Mo Scéal(1) Snack Time(1) Together Old and Young Programme(1) budget(1) Valerie Gaynor(1) Recycle(1) dublin(2) ICBN(1) Stress(2) Maternity Leave(1) Breathing(2) books(4) Exploring and Thinking(1) INTO(1) Consent(1) United Nations(1) Decisions(1) First 5(1) toddlers(3) Sustainability(3) Culture(2) Plants(1) pets(1) Creative(1) National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education(1) Aistear(103) Children(1) christmas(8) social media(1) Frustrations(1) Little Buddies(1) Time(1) Afghanistan(1) San Miniato(4) communication(4) Mark Twain(1) Challenges(1) Montessori(2) UNCRC(1) relationships(12) Budget 2018(1) Reggio(1) Qualifications(1) Running(1) curriculum(5) Diversity(1) Family wall(1) refugees(1) Trade Unions(1) Awards 2018(3) UD(1) Santa(2) environments(1) Vivian Gussin Paley(1) Visual Impairment(1) Touch(1) Child mental health(1) Community involvement(1) ERASMUS+(3) Advocacy(1) Maths Week(1) Minister Katherine Zappone(1) risky play(2) trust(2) curiosity(3) Dr. Emer Ring(1) Loss(1) Maynooth University(1) Magda Gerber(1) Behaviour(3) Nuturing interactions(1) Health(1) Access and Inclusion Model(2) Seas Suas(1) LINC Award for Leadership in Inclusion(1) Wendy Lee(2) Storytelling(2) Photographs(1) Italy(1) story time(1) educating(1) memories(1) Leprechauns(1) Line-ups(1) Magnavacchi(1) Wesco(1) Learning journals(1) Funding(1) Mixed age groups(2) Administrative Burden(1) Síolta Quality Assurance programme(1) dining(1) Painting(1) Competent(1) Síolta(98) IGL(1) Drawing(2) CIT(1) Masterclass(2) Shoes(1) Anxiety(2) Thinking(1) Growing up in Ireland(3) Trick or treat(1) Upcycling(1) Party(1) Employee(1) baby room(1) feisty(1) stories(2) Care routines(1) Performance Management(1) Growing up Outdoors(1) mushrooms(1) Death(1) National Council for Curriculum and Assessment(1) Early Learning and Care Centres(1) Wilenski(1) listening(1) Empathy(1)


Site maintained and developed by Cloud Nine