The first month of school has passed and the children have settled into their routines nicely. Now that the settling in has passed, a new question has started to come: "has she made any friends?" or "who does my child play with the most?" The questions surrounding friendship in the early years may not have simple answers, and there is no need for alarm when the answers may be "not yet" or "they seem to be enjoying time to play by themselves at the moment".
There’s a wide range of normal when it comes to young children making friends. By 3 years, many children are regularly involved in activities with other children such as 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 the setting, 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 or beginning to show an interest in how play works. 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 with ease and get energy from being around lots of other people. Others may find this situation overwhelming. Some children might be slower to warm up and need time to observe what happens before joining in with a group. All of these scenarios are normal as each child is an individual with their own needs and abilities which extend into social skills.
Children need to learn friendship skills.
As your child plays with others, she builds skills that help her with friendships now and in the future. Sharing, taking turns, cooperating, listening to others, managing disagreement, negotiating and having fun -- all of these are friendship skills that we as adults take for granted as we have forgotten the journey we took to get to the stage that we are at now.
For example, when children begin to role-play in a play kitchen or home-corner, they have to decide what roles to take and what to do – not everyone can be mummy! And if they all want to be mum, or they have different ideas about what mums do, they have to work it out.
The journey to this point takes time, and during the first six years of life there are 6 stages of play that the children transition between. Be sure to give your child plenty of time and space to play as all the stages are important for your child’s development. They involve exploring, being creative, and having fun. This list explains how children’s play changes by age as they grow and develop social skills.
Unoccupied Play (Birth-3 Months): At this stage baby is just making a lot of movements with their arms, legs, hands, feet, etc. They are learning about and discovering how their body moves.
Solitary Play (Birth-2 Years): This is the stage when a child plays alone. They are not interested in playing with others quite yet.
Spectator/Onlooker Behaviour (2 Years): During this stage a child begins to watch other children playing but does not play with them.
Parallel Play (2+ Years): When a child plays alongside or near others but does not play with them this stage is referred to as parallel play.
Associate Play (3-4 Years): When a child starts to interact with others during play, but there is not a large amount of interaction at this stage. A child might be doing an activity related to the children around him, but might not actually be interacting with another child. For example, children might all be playing on the same piece of playground equipment but all doing different things like climbing, swinging, etc.
Cooperative Play (4+ years): When a child plays together with others and has interest in both the activity and other children involved in playing they are participating in cooperative play.
If your three-year-old has still not named any friends yet or her teachers tell you that "she likes exploring the environment on her own", it is probably because she's just not interested in having friends just yet -- and, from the stages of play above, that's absolutely normal. 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. It takes a long time to start being able to cooperate and understand the rules of playing because each group of children have their own rules and perhaps the rules from the previous group are not the same -- complicated! However, exposure to this will enhance the skills to read a play scenario over time.
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 his 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.
Sometimes your child might take some time by herself away from the play. Talking with your child – as well as watching what happens – can help you work out what’s going on.
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 observe what others are doing so he can work out how to join in. For example, ‘What’s Nicolas doing what the garden? Do you think he is looking for flowers? Do you think he needs a gardener to help him pull the weeds?’
Guide your child with ways they could start play and invite others to join. For example, ‘Can you help me fill this bucket with water? Can you see if anyone else will help us get the water from one bucket to the other?’
Emma is the manager of Little Gems Montessori in Larnaca where she observes lots of different levels of friendship and play every day. If you'd like to learn more
about how we promote friendship and play, get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org