Preschoolers are beginning to graduate from parallel play to developing real friendships with their playmates. However, these relationships may not look like what you’d expect.
“It’s more of a fleeting friendship around age 3,” said Greta Powell, a preschool teacher and early interventionist at Akron Children’s Family Child Learning Center. “He’s my best friend one day and just my classmate the next. It may be that they’re friends because it’s a familiar face he sees every day at preschool, or they have the same interests in toys.”
At age 4 or 5, that’s when kids really begin to have preferred friends. They enjoy playing together outside the classroom, their interaction is more cooperative and they begin to understand each other’s perspectives.
But that doesn’t mean parents of young preschoolers, even toddlers, shouldn’t help their kids foster friendships.
“Friendships are important at this age because they learn to negotiate skills and learn from each other,” said Powell. “It’s also good for their self-esteem. When other kids like them or they feel accepted, it builds their confidence.”
She offers 3 tips on how parents can help their kids foster strong and healthy bonds that just may last a lifetime.
Host play dates.
Playing with other kids gives your child the opportunity to practice being a good friend.
Keep play dates small, about 2 or 3 kids at a time, and plan activities that they can enjoy together, Powell advised. A planned activity, such as playing a game or doing a craft, can be less threatening because it’s structured and everyone plays a role.
“Include kids with different cultures or disabilities to encourage diverse friendships,” said Powell. “It’s a great opportunity to teach kids that it’s OK to be different.”
Sometimes it’s easier to give in to kids instead of teaching them the art of sharing. Take time to model this important skill by asking to play with things, and demonstrating the give and take when playing with one another. Show your child that sharing can make playing together more fun.
Reading children’s books about conflict and how to problem solve also is a great way to model sharing and being a good friend.
Engage in emotional coaching.
Preschoolers are starting to understand that others have feelings that may be different from their own.
Encourage empathy by talking your child through a conflict to point out how the other child may be feeling. Tell your daughter the little boy is sad because she took his toy. Ask questions, such as “What can you do to make him feel better?”
“Empathy is the foundation of any friendship and an important skill parents should instill in their kids at an early age,” said Powell. “Emotional coaching can help kids understand how their actions affect others, and they can learn to be caring and thoughtful friends.”