Preschool friendships

Playing with pals helps kids learn social skills

Four-year-old Kate loves her friend Nell. Fortunately, the mothers like each other too, so they get together fairly often. But not often enough for Kate, who asks her mother every morning, “Is Nell coming over?” Even when they’re not together, Kate will sometimes talk to “imaginary Nell,” pretending that her friend is playing with her.

Pretend play

Kate’s mother, Alison Sweet, is surprised by how intense her daughter’s first friendship is. “She didn’t care that much about other kids even a year ago, but now Nell is so important to her.”

Toddlers and younger preschoolers generally play on their own, although they are definitely aware of other children around them and may copy what the other children are doing, says Debra Mayer, a professor of developmental studies at the University of Winnipeg. “But as they get older, they start to play together, and real, strong friendships begin to develop.”

It’s the beginning of imaginary play that seems to foster more interaction. “Some will pretend-play a story with roles (‘You are the baby and I am the daddy’) and a plot (‘We’re going to the store to buy a hammer’). Pretending alongside a friend while acting out a story helps the child understand herself and her feelings as well as those of the people around her,” Mayer explains.

The ability to empathize that’s demonstrated in those games is the key to sustaining real friendships, Mayer adds. It’s sometimes seen in children as young as 2½, but is more likely to appear in three- and four-year-olds. “Children will then have more readiness for the ‘work’ that it takes to maintain friendships.”

And don’t underestimate the value of these early friendships. “They help to support children’s emotional and social development and their understanding of the world around them,” Mayer says.

Of course, sometimes it’s hard to see these benefits when your child’s playdates involve lots of squabbling over toys and your child’s buddy keeps bopping him on the head when he doesn’t hand over the truck. But Mayer suggests you should see these as learning opportunities: “Conflicts erupt because children don’t yet have the skills to mediate disagreements. Early childhood educators spend a great deal of time reminding children to ‘use your words’ rather than hitting and grabbing.” Parents supervising preschool friendships often have to do the same thing — so plan to stick close.

For parents of socializing preschoolers, Mayer recommends these other useful tools:

• Teach your child to ask before jumping in by suggesting he say, “Can I help?” or “Can I play too?” Some children have very definite ideas about what they are playing and get upset if another child hijacks the game.

• Teach the concept of taking turns. It’s hard for impatient preschoolers to wait while another child rides the tricycle, so they may need a little help from you: “It will be your turn in a minute. Where will you ride when it’s your turn?”

• To reduce conflict, ask your child which special toys he’d like to put away before a playdate, and have duplicate toys when possible. (You could, for example, divide the blocks into two bins.)

• “Many children who are very successful in making friends use good manners — saying ‘excuse me’ or ‘thank you’ a lot,” Mayer says. “Others use praise effectively, saying things like ‘I like your doll’ or ‘You built a big tower.’ You can coach your child to use these phrases with children he or she would like to be friends with.”

• Be prepared to get down on the floor with your child and his friend to get the game started. Once it’s under way and the kids are both involved, you can quietly move away.

• Expect mostly same-sex friendships. While some children do have friends of both genders, boys generally prefer to play with boys and girls with girls.

• Respect individual temperaments. “Some children are just more sociable than others,” says Mayer. Some need lots of “playing alone” time to balance out their interactions with friends, and really prefer to have just one or two friends, or even a cousin or sibling to play with.

“It’s through these early friendships that children learn the fine art of negotiation, co-operation and communication,” says Mayer. That may be worth a few incidents of being bashed with a toy truck during the learning process.

So you’re convinced of the value of friends for your preschooler, but there aren’t many other children in your neighbourhood to invite over. Debra Mayer of the University of Winnipeg suggests checking these locations:

• parent-child drop-in programs at the community recreation centre, Ontario Early Years Centres, etc.

• preschool storytime at the library or bookstore

• parents and children you meet at the local park or playground

• Y programs

• children’s programs at your church, synagogue or other spiritual organization

• nursery school or child care program (ask the teacher or caregiver to suggest children who seem to be compatible with your child)

Friendships for preschoolers with disabilities

“Research says that children with disabilities often have fewer friends and are at a great risk of rejection by peers,” explains Debra Mayer, who is director of the SpeciaLink program at the University of Winnipeg. Some strategies that can help:

• As the adult, you can plan structured activities that allow the child with disabilities to be involved. For example, set up the playdough and tools on a wheelchair-accessible table rather than on a play mat on the floor.

• Initiate a “pretend play” activity by assigning roles, including a role for the disabled child that makes use of her abilities.

• Use puppets and stories to help the other children understand the child’s disabilities.