Preschoolers making friends: what to expect
There’s a big range of normal when it comes to preschoolers making friends.
By three years, many children are regularly involved in activities with other children – for example, at child care, kinder or playgroup.
At this age, some children have a clear idea of who their friends are and can name them. They might look for their friends when they arrive at preschool or playgroup, and play just with them. They might even want to have playdates with friends.
Other children at this age might not have friends they can name, but they might be keen on making friends.
By four years, most children will be able to tell the difference between ‘my friend’ and other children they know.
Some children seem to make friends easily and get energy from being around lots of other people. Others can find this tiring and overwhelming. Some children might be slower to warm up and need time to watch what happens before joining in with a group.
How preschoolers make friends
Children need to learn friendship skills. As your child plays with others, they builds skills that help them with friendships now and in the future. These are skills like sharing, taking turns, cooperating, listening to others, managing disagreement, and negotiating different ways of thinking about things.
For example, when children decide to play in the home corner, they have to decide what roles to take and what to do – not everyone can be mum or dad! And if they all want to be the same person, or they have different ideas about what people do, they have to work it out.
Helping your preschooler learn about being a good friend
You can help your child learn about being a good friend as part of everyday family life.
For example, your child might need to give and take when they're playing with their brother and they’re deciding what to play or who gets to use a particular toy.
When these situations happen, you can describe and explain what’s going on and why. For example, you might say, ‘That was a great idea to listen to each other before you decided what to play’, or ‘What if you told a story where you both had a turn with the toy?’
When you play games like board games with your child, you can show them how to win and lose graciously.
Talking and listening are also important skills for friendship – for example, showing interest in what others are saying and asking questions. Family meals can be a great time to role-model these skills and give your child a chance to practise them.
It might help to remember that many of these skills are hard even for adults. Your child is still learning and needs lots of opportunities to practise being a good friend.
Helping preschoolers make friends during play
Giving your child the chance to play with other children from preschool or playgroup can help him develop friendships.
You can start by talking with your child about who they play with, why they like playing with those friends and what they like to play. Then you can talk to the other parents about playdates, either at your home, at a local park or somewhere else that gives the children plenty of space and things to play with.
Here are some ideas for helping your child make friends during play:
- Help your child play well. You can do this by giving your child and their friends some different options for play. For example, you could say, ‘Would you like to play with blocks or cars?’ Praise the children when they decide on something together – for example, ‘I love the way you two worked that out together’.
- Put your child’s special toys away when friends come over. This can stop arguments from starting.
- Stay close. It can be reassuring for your child to have you nearby, particularly if the children don’t know each other well. As your child gets more confident you can be further away, although it’s still important to be aware of what’s going on.
- Keep an eye on what’s going on. This will help you know whether children are just enjoying some rough-and-tumble play, or whether the play is getting out of hand. If things are getting too rough, you’ll need to step in.
- Set a time limit for the playdate. When children get tired, they often find it harder to cooperate. It’s good to finish play time with everyone wanting to do it again.
When things go wrong with preschooler friendships and playdates
There’ll be times when play between preschool friends doesn’t work out the way you planned.
Children behaving aggressively
An occasional disagreement with a friend is normal. But if shouting or hitting starts, you might need to step in and guide the children’s behaviour. In this situation, it’s important to be clear about what needs to stop and why. For example, ‘Please stop pushing each other. You’re both getting hurt’.
Sometimes your child might take some time alone away from the play. Talking with your child – as well as watching what happens – can help you work out what’s going on.
Playing solo is usually nothing to worry about. In fact, you’ll often see two children playing alongside each other. That’s because children at this age are still learning how to play together.
But if your child seems unsure of how to join in play, is consistently left out by other children, or often doesn’t want to play with others, there are things you can do to help:
- Encourage your child to watch what others are doing so your child can work out how to join in. For example, ‘What’s Bella doing what that food? Do you think she might be setting up a restaurant? Do you think it might need customers? Or a cook?’
- Talk about ways your child could start play and invite others to join. For example, ‘Can you help me dig a hole in the sand? Can you see if anyone else will help us make it really deep?’
‘You’re not my friend!’
During the preschool years, children sometimes say things like ‘You’re not my friend’.
Some children might be hurt by this, and others seem able to shake it off. Often children sort things out and are ‘friends’ again minutes later.
If your child talks about problems playing with friends at preschool, it’s a good idea to talk to your child’s preschool teachers. The teachers can keep an eye on what’s happening and follow up with conversations, stories or activities.
It might help to explain to your child that it’s normal to feel lonely sometimes, and most people don’t get along with everyone they meet. Planning some playdates with other children from preschool might also help your child feel more confident about playing with everyone at preschool.