A common question for any early childhood teachers is: “We’re having a party, who are my child’s friends?”. It’s not always (or even often) a simple question to answer.
Children develop their skills and personalities at different rates, and that includes making friends. Some children are reserved and are happy to play on their own, others are more social and move quickly to parallel play (playing alongside a playmate). Playing with a friend (paired-off play) is a later stage and usually begins around three years of age. The important point is that there’s no ‘right’ way for preschool children to play at any age. We just need to let them progress at their own pace.
Before children advance to cooperative play (working together), they need to have developed two important skills:
- Communication. To be able to express ideas, greet other children, tell other children about the themselves and their favourite activities, ask other children their likes and dislikes and, of course, to be able to ask other children to join them.
- Empathy. To be able to pay attention to other children, understand how their own words and actions make other children feel, and appreciate that other children make different choices.
It’s not easy to make friends, even for children who have mastered some of these skills. It takes persistence and practice (and patience on our part!).
Here are some ways parents can help foster friendships for pre-schoolers.
- Try inviting a classmate to play at your house so your child can make friends one at a time, in the comfort of their home. Keep the first visit short (and set a finish time up-front).
- Help your child notice opportunities to play: “Why don’t you help Mary to…?”. Point out behaviour that other children may appreciate, like taking turns (which takes a lot of practice) and letting others choose activities.
- Accept their preferences. Like us, they don’t make friends with everyone they meet. It’s OK to be uninterested in some children and attracted to others.
- Give the children time and space to solve conflicts on their own.
And if you are still worried, chat with your teacher and ask them for help. Sometimes a nudge in the right direction is all it takes.