Toddlers making friends: what to expect
At 1-2 years, children generally play with the other children around them, rather than choosing a ‘best’ friend. Many of your child’s playmates will be the children of people you know – for example, friends, family or parents you meet at playgroup.
Toddlers vary in how social they are. Some are naturally more sociable and can manage more playmates, whereas others are more comfortable with fewer playmates.
As your child gets older and starts to talk more, they’ll probably start telling you who they like playing with. They might even start asking for playdates.
Preparing your child for toddler friendships
Your toddler doesn’t yet understand friendship skills, like sharing, taking turns and solving problems.
You can help your toddler start learning and practising these skills by spending time playing together. Through play, you can show your child how to be a good friend and play well with others. Try these ideas:
- Take turns to add blocks to a tower or to kick a ball, and prompt your child by saying ‘My turn’ and ‘Your turn’.
- Model sharing. For example, you might give your child a piece of your playdough and say, ‘Let’s share my playdough – some for you and some for me’. When your child has played with you like this for a while, you could ask your child to share some of their playdough.
- Use toys like teddies or dolls to ask for turns, share toys and look after their teddy friends. Your child will watch this fun game and copy what they see – sometimes, at least!
- While you’re taking turns, sharing or playing toy-sharing games, comment on how much fun it is when everyone gets a turn or gets to share.
When your child takes turns or shares something, give your child plenty of praise – for example, ‘Nice sharing’ or ‘Thank you for sharing with me’.
Helping toddler playdates go smoothly
Play is how young children learn. The more your child plays with other children, the more likely your child will learn to play well.
You can help playdates go smoothly by setting things up for your child and their playmates. For example:
- Stay close to play so you can help with sharing and taking turns.
- Ask your child whether there are any toys they want to put away before friends come over. Or you can put away your child’s favourite toys yourself and help your child choose some toys and games they’re happy to share.
- Set up games where toddlers can play side by side but don’t necessarily have to take turns. At this age, they’re learning to share and it will take time. Turn-taking games can often end in tears, but toddlers usually do well with sandpit play, painting, building with blocks, throwing balls, or playing with dolls and cars.
- Try to have plenty of toys for children to play with so they’re not competing for one favourite thing.
- You don’t need expensive toys or highly structured activities for children to have fun with their friends. The more relaxed they are, the easier it is for them to enjoy being with a friend.
Here are some tips to help toddlers get along:
- Keep playdates relatively short – say, 45 minutes to an hour. This means you can finish the playdate while it’s going well, rather than waiting until one or both children get tired, cranky and teary. Your child will remember the playdate as something good and will want to do it again.
- Sit with children for a while when they start playing. Wait until they’ve found their rhythm and are playing happily together before you leave them to play.
- Stay within eyesight so you can step in quickly if play is getting too rough, or there are squabbles over toys. Being able to see you will also help your child feel safe and comfortable in this new situation.
Some children with disability might have additional challenges when making friends. A child behaviour professional might be able to give you some strategies and support to develop your child’s skills. You can read more about play and friendship for children with disability.
When things go wrong on toddler playdates
Young children can get very frustrated quickly and often don’t have the words to express how they feel. This can lead to them being aggressive towards a friend when things aren’t going their way.
If you sense things are getting tense, you could distract the children by saying something like, ‘Let’s play with these trucks. James, you can have the blue one. Sam, you have the red one’. Then step away so they can go on with their play.
If your child behaves aggressively, you can firmly say ‘Stop’ and then tell your child exactly what you want them to do. For example, ‘Stop! Hitting hurts. We don’t hit people. Spades are for digging’. This will help your child learn that being aggressive isn’t the right way to play.
Very young children might not understand that another child who’s playing with their toys isn’t going to take them home. It can help if you reassure your child that the toys are still theirs and will stay at home with them.
If your child has a lot of trouble playing with other children, or your child’s play is very different from the way other children play, it might help to talk with your child and family health nurse, GP or paediatrician.
Other parents can be a great source of ideas about helping toddlers make friends and setting up toddler playdates.