Healthy, supportive relationships are a critical part of development, in early childhood and beyond. From as early as infancy, children smile and make eye contact with others to try to connect with them. As they transition into toddlerhood and preschool, little ones will try to find common interests and share in playful activities with their peers. As educators, we can support these early interactions by introducing the children in our care to the skills and qualities that will help them form meaningful friendships.
Benefits of Friendships in Early Childhood
Friendships in preschool and early childhood present valuable opportunities for learning, language development, and social-emotional skill-building. These experiences form a foundation from which important life skills can develop, including…
Empathy: Children can learn a lot about the world around them through friendships. No matter what our age, we all benefit from spending time with people with a variety of perspectives and life experiences. By encouraging early friendships among the children in our care, we create an environment in which children from a range of backgrounds can cultivate understanding and empathy.
Sensitivity: Through friendships, children learn what it feels like to care for others and to know that others care for them. Even on days that they are feeling down, they have the opportunity to experience the joys and support that friendships can provide. The good feelings that come with friendship can inspire children to pass on the same care and sensitivity to others.
Belonging: When positive relationships are formed within early childhood programs, the learning process becomes especially joyful. Early friendships can contribute to a child’s sense of happiness and belonging while at school.
Communication: When children play with friends, they are also building valuable communication skills. Games and shared activities, role-playing, idea generation, and conversation, are among the many interactive experiences that help children learn new words, develop language skills, and practice self-expression.
Personality Differences & Relationships
As we help children learn to be friends, it is important to remember that every child is unique – with distinctive personalities, temperaments, and boundaries. We can model inclusion for the children in our care by welcoming them with kindness and by creating inclusive learning spaces that celebrate each child’s uniqueness.
Because of their differences, the children in your program will get along well with some of their peers and not as well with others – and that’s okay! Not everyone has to be the best of friends. We can help children learn how to show kindness towards every member of the classroom community, including those they don’t get along with particularly well.
3 Foundational Skills for Friendship
To enjoy games and play together, children must be able to hear, understand, and follow the rules of the games. In an article for Teach Early Years, preschool and kindergarten teacher Eleanor Johnson describes the connection between listening skills and early friendships: “Difficulties with listening and attention can impact on a child’s play and the ability to make friends…If children are easily distracted they will find it difficult to remain part of group play and all of the associated benefits this brings for a child’s language development and social skills.” To support children’s developing listening skills, Johnson shares the following recommendations:
Incorporate regular listening activities into your curriculum. Simple, interactive games such as Red Light, Green Light and Simon Says can help children practice their listening and attention skills, both of which will support their ability to be successful communicators.
Use storytime to practice listening. While reading a book together in a large group, we can encourage children to practice careful listening skills by pausing to ask them questions about the story, such as “What do we think this character is going to do?” or “What kinds of animals do we see in this picture?” These kinds of questions encourage children to focus, listen, process, and respond thoughtfully.
Create spaces for children to spend quiet time. Sometimes the busy classroom can be overwhelming, making it more difficult for children to listen and pay attention successfully. In these moments, it can be helpful for children to have a quiet, cozy space in which they can go to take a break so that they can return to the group feeling refreshed and ready to focus.
2. Taking Turns
In order for children to play with their peers, they must learn how to share and take turns with the materials that are offered in the classroom. An article from the U.S. Department of Education’s Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Young Children (TACSEI) explains, “Children are not born knowing how to take turns. It is a skill that they must be taught…In order to learn how to take turns successfully, children need lots of practice, help, and encouragement.” To help practice these skills in your classroom, the article provides the following suggestions:
Use a timer. Waiting is much more difficult when children don’t know when to expect their turn. It can be made easier with a sand timer or a song so that children can monitor the time and see when their turn is coming up.
Build turn-taking into playtime. Almost any toy or activity can be made into a turn-taking game. Encourage children to take turns doing some of their favorite activities, such as sliding down the slide, using the swing, racing a car down a track, or wearing a popular dress-up item.
Celebrate successes. Encourage children with positive language when you see them waiting patiently or sharing with a friend. You can say something like, “I noticed you waiting for a turn on the swing – waiting can be hard, but you’re doing it! High five!”
3. Conflict Resolution
Differences in children’s needs, preferences, and personalities can become a source of conflict in any early learning program. In an article for Community Playthings, early learning program director Cindy Finch describes an approach for transforming conflict into learning: “When adults are thoughtful and skilled in their approach to classroom conflict, children benefit. Conflict resolution is an important foundation for future growth and learning…A prepared teacher knows that conflict has educational and social value for children’s development.”
Observing the way that children are interacting with one another during a conflict, helps early educators choose the best possible response to the conflict. The following strategies can be helpful:
Wait and see. Avoid stepping into the conflict too soon. Observe the children’s interactions to see whether or not they are able to resolve the issue on their own before getting involved. Often they will be able to work things out without the help of an adult!
Participate actively along with the children. Sit alongside children while they’re playing and join in the conversation when a conflict arises. Providing helpful input and clear language will help children see situations accurately before things become too emotional. You might say something like, “She wanted the window blocks and so did you. You took them from her so you could have them right now…Let’s think about what we could do differently so that things feel more fair to everyone.”
Encourage children to take breaks. When conflicts arise, feelings can escalate quickly. Because children are still learning to control their emotions, they might sometimes respond with anger and aggression. During these moments, encouraging children to take a break can help prevent harmful behavior. It is also an opportunity for young children to learn about boundaries and to understand that friends don’t always have to play with each other.