Preschoolers making friends: what to expect
By 3 years, many children regularly do activities with other children – for example, at child care, preschool 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 4 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 a lot 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 and practise friendship skills.
As children play with others, they build skills that help them with friendships now and in the future. These are skills like sharing, taking turns, cooperating, listening to others, managing disagreements, and seeing other people’s points of view.
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! And if they all want to be mum, or they have different ideas about what mums do, they have to work it out.
Knowing how your child responds to other children gives you a good basis for helping your child make friends and build friendships in a way that suits their temperament.
Helping preschoolers learn about being good friends
You can help your child learn about being a good friend as part of everyday family life.
For example, if your child is playing with a sibling, they might need to work out what to play or who gets to use a particular toy. You can praise your child when you see them working out things well. For example, you could say, ‘That was a great idea to listen to each other before you decided what to play’. Or you can make suggestions if they need help with sharing. For example, ‘What if you told a story where you both had a turn with the toy?’
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 model these skills and give your child a chance to practise them.
Winning and losing graciously is another skill you can model and your child can practise during family activities. Family board games are particularly good for this. You can show your child how to say friendly things like ‘Congratulations – well done!’ or ‘Great game – thanks for playing’.
Your child’s preschool teacher should be able to give you advice on social skills you and your child could practise together at home.
Helping preschoolers make friends during play
Giving your child the chance to play with other children from preschool or playgroup can help your child develop friendships. It’s a good idea to start with playdates with 1-2 friends rather than a lot of children. Just one friend can work well if your child is shy or slow to warm up in social situations.
You can start by talking with your child about who they play with, why they like playing with them 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 ideas for helping your child make friends during play:
- Give your child and their friends 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 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 natural. But if name-calling or aggression starts, you need to step in and guide the children’s behaviour. 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 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 children playing alongside each other, each doing their own thing. 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 they can work out how to join in. For example, ‘What’s Bella doing with 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!’
Preschoolers are learning what’s OK in friendships and social groups. So some preschoolers might tell other children they can’t join in ‘their’ group or say things like ‘You’re not my friend’. They might also make bargains or threats about friendship. For example, ‘If you don’t invite me to your party, I won’t be your friend’.
Some children might be hurt by this kind of behaviour, and others seem able to shake it off. Often children sort things out and are ‘friends’ again minutes later.
It’s best to quietly monitor preschooler friendship issues, rather than trying to fix things straight away. It might help to explain to your child that everyone feels lonely sometimes, and most people don’t get along with everyone they meet. Playdates with other children from preschool might also help your child feel more confident about playing with everyone at preschool.
If you think your child is excluding their friends, it’s a good idea to talk to them about it away from their friends. They’ll be more likely to listen if they’re not feeling embarrassed. Point out that this isn’t friendly behaviour, and give them other ideas for handling the situation.
If your child talks about persistent problems playing with friends at preschool, or problems with some children in particular, 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.