“Will You Be My Friend?” Preschool Friendships

As adults, we value friendship because of the many benefits it affords us.  Our long-time friends make us laugh, support us through difficult times, and know us inside and out–the good and the bad. We want our children to also feel the security of warm friendships.  The relationships we hope they will build, however, require the child to learn a lot about social grace through trial and error. Children need a significant amount of coaching to understand what it means to be a good friend.  We as parents sometimes get anxious about the social situation in a classroom or during a play date, but it is important to remember that the relationships our 3-5 year olds have are not the same thing as the relationships we have built over the years.  Friendship means something very different to a small child as compared to an adult. Parents can work with their children to help them develop the social skills they will be using throughout their lifetimes in order to build the kind of freindships we all cherish. The early childhood staff has offered advice as a guide to help parents work on these skills throughout the school year as well as on the playground or in the backyard during the summer.

It can be helpful to coach children about ways to join play already in progress. Often when a child simply asks a group “Can I play?” the answer is a quick “no”.  This response is not really a mean reaction to the child-though it certainly feels that way. Young children have a difficult time stopping their play when they are in the groove.  If there is a group of children playing house, it is difficult to stop play, think of a new character, make space for that character and then continue with play. So the answer from the group is an off-hand “no.”  The child interested in playing with a group needs to complete some of the tasks the group is not able to.  It is helpful if your child watches a moment to get a sense of the game, and then decides on a character or a helpful role she can take on herself. She can then enter the play without a question, but with a statement: “You are playing house. I will be grandmother and I brought a basket of bread.” Children are not often exclusionary out of maliciousness, and they will often incorporate the grandmother into play easily. Parents can encourage their child to follow this method of joining play by role playing the process with them, as well as coaching them to join play in this way during play dates or other events with friends.

Another issue that often comes up around the play of preschoolers is the way in which they play.  Children aged three are often not yet interested in cooperative play. They are moving towards play that involves others in projects, but they often are not skilled at doing this until they reach the age of four.  When we see children playing in the same area, but not necessarily playing the same thing or playing together, note that the children are most likely still satisfied with this interaction.  Even older children need a break from the group dynamic sometimes, and their solitary play is a means of regenerating energy, not a result of an inability to interact. For this reason, one phrase that is often encouraged in the preschool classrooms around play is a way in which a child can respectfully ask for more personal time.  When a friend asks “Can I play”, a reasonable response can be “Not now, maybe later.” This shows the friend that they are still friends and play will happen later, but that the first child still needs some space. Parents can discuss with their child that the child has permission to not play with others if they feel they need a break. This can create great relief for the child who expends a lot of energy during her social time.

One important step the teachers in a preschool classroom take during play is to be near at hand during social interactions. Children are always monitored and are at first given the opportunity to naturally create their own solutions if they are able. If a problem between children needs re-direction the teacher steps in to the play. Often, simply the presence of the teacher will create the re-direction needed. A teacher does not need to be explicit about the help that is offered, she can simply enforce the turn taking that should be happening, or offer a double of a toy or another way to engage play for the children having trouble. This gentle nudge toward social grace is often enough to get the children back on track. This sort of problem solving during play creates a respectful atmosphere and encourages social competence in all.

Parents can continue this coaching at home. Play dates are a wonderful way to keep children working on their social graces; some parameters around the children can help the event to be successful. It is often least stressful to  have just one other child over to play. This way they can focus energy on each other and concentrate on being good friends without having to be the “host” of a party. In addition, neutral territory for a play date creates a successful event.  A play date based in a park, rather than at someone’s home, allows either parent to  leave when the children are beginning to show signs of tiredness, rather than needing to stay until an allotted time for a parent to come and pick up the child. Lastly, the children involved often need the parents to be advocates for the relationship between the two friends. Although preschool children don’t need parents to be involved in all levels of play, they do need parents to be involved if the interactions are becoming disrespectful. Problem solving in a natural way, or redirecting the children to something more socially acceptable is the parent’s job, because children don’t yet have the skills to work out all the issues around their play.

There are multiple ways to solve problems with friends, and parents can work to show children a variety of ways to be respectful about working out differences. It is important for children to understand that they are not always going to be happy with their friends–sometimes problems will occur. Conflict is a natural consequence of being together, not something to avoid. A parent can remind her child that people who are friends can have disagreements and still be friends. It is important to work through the disagreements respectfully so that the friendship can strengthen. Research has shown that children are more successful in social situations when parents and teachers encourage them to meet conflicts and problems with a multitude of resolutions. Discuss issues that come up with friends, and work through three or four ways your child can solve the problem. Having a lot of tools in her social-grace tool box will help her to meet the challenges of the classroom more confidently and successfully.

Sharing is often an issue parents struggle with. Preschool children are just moving into the developmental ability to begin to share their items with friends. One way to encourage this is through turn taking. These two concepts are not the same. When two friends take turns, they get an equal amount of time with one object, and they pass it between them. Sharing can be seen as both children having use of a number of toys. Often children share the play-do in a classroom because there is a lot of it. However, if there is one pretend telephone in the play area, the children need to take turns. Parents can encourage turn taking between friends because it is respectful to both parties. Children can respond to a question “Can I play with that?”  with “In a minute.” This allows the child who has the object to be able to finish with it, rather than have to hand it over right away-which is an unrealistic expectation. The friend knows that she will get the next turn.

Another problem that occurs during play is that sometimes friends try out strategies with each other that are inappropriate. When this occurs, it is important for your child to understand that he does not have to play with a friend who is not being respectful. Your child needs to have permission from you and from his teachers to say “I don’t want to play” when his friend is doing something unkind. Parents and teachers have the job of talking about what a good friend does. He uses his words, he does not use force, he takes turns rather than grabs things. When a child feels he is being treated unfairly, he is then able to use the words we teach him to get out of the situation, rather than feel stuck in something that feels unhealthy.

Problems sometimes arise around a lack of fair play during a game. We live in a competitive society, and that sometimes encourages behavior that encourages any means justifying the ends. In addition, preschool children are developmentally just moving out of the sense that the world revolves around them. Developmentally this has been appropriate for them for years, and it is a real transition to move into the world as just one piece of it, rather than the whole. When parents are playing games with their child, focus on the fun of the game, rather than who wins.  Show your child fair play and the results of following the rules.  When your child wins–or you win–don’t make too big a deal of it, just discuss the joy of playing. Teaching our children fair game playing etiquette makes them more enjoyable to play with in a group, and helps everyone to focus on the fun of the activity rather than the stress of having to outperform peers.

When looking for an opportunity to discuss the trials and tribulations of friendship, we hope that we can discuss situations objectively, rather than having to dry tears after having a sad experience with a friend. One series of books that is highly recommended to jump start discussions with your child is the series entitled “Learning to Get Along” by Cheri J Meiners. These books discuss social and emotional skills in a child-friendly, honest and engaging way. Children receive information about respectful relationships and parents are provided with learning activities they can do with their child to help reinforce the skills.

We love our friends, and we all remember difficult times we have had to overcome with some of them. Our preschool children are just now beginning to learn about friendship, and how to develop the skills and tools to get along with others. This social learning takes a significant amount of time and energy and trial and error. Whether your child will be enjoying the preschool programs Hopkins offers throughout the year or are playing in the back yard with neighbor kids, be sure to take the time throughout the days to talk about expectations you have for them about being a good friend–and about what they can and should be expecting from their peers.

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