Friendship in Early Childhood
By Adrienne Hoskins
Learning how to make and be a friend is one of the major developmental tasks of early childhood. It’s like learning to read – it’s a foundational skill for building later competencies that depend on this.
Your children are developing skills at school to help build a strong foundation for cooperative social play. During early childhood, kids actively seek ways to assert their own identities and to find ways to be powerful. Unfortunately, because of their developmental level, young children often don’t know how to make themselves feel more powerful without it being at the expense of another. They often look for “advantages” – who runs faster, who’s currently using the pink scissors, who has the biggest muffin in their snack box. For young children, as strange as this may seem, this is the work of finding their place in the world.
As kids begin to feel safe at school and want to play with other kids, they bring their naturally spontaneous and playful nature to these interactions. However, these same social impulses can be unpredictable and hurtful. As they play, stethoscopes get snatched and friends get elbowed out. As young children learn how to enter and sustain play, how to be friends and to bounce back from rejection, their social skills grow. Young children often disagree intensely, which can be distressing to adults, but which is part of learning who they are.
Young children naturally move from parallel play (alone or next to other kids, with separate ideas) to cooperative play, in which children share a common idea or theme, working together to negotiate rules and roles of the moment. In new situations like beginning at a new school, we may see children return to a less mature kind of play until they feel relaxed enough to jump into their more sophisticated ways of playing.
Some Preschool and Kindergarten friendships are serene and calm, but many are turbulent and variable. On the way to learning to cooperate and compromise, we adults may wince at hearing their words: “I had it first! You’re not my friend.” “No, my idea is more cool. You can’t play here.” “Only girls can climb up here – no boys allowed!”
All of us want our children to be generous and friendly and well-liked. As parents and teachers, how do we support this? Some of the ways we do this at Oak Grove include:
Observing without judgment. We keep in mind the age level of individual children and the social dynamics that come with that. We know that children have their individual temperament – some prefer playing with friends to everything else and play with a wide variety of children. Others take time to warm up and prefer playing with one or two special friends in familiar, small groups. Some prefer to lead play and others to follow; we encourage opportunities for kids to fulfill the opposite role in play.
Respecting their friendship choices. We respect children’s right to choose (sometimes two children are discovering a special connection), while making sure that feelings aren’t hurt and that there is space for a third child to connect and belong elsewhere.
Facilitating their learning to resolve conflicts independently and peacefully. When arguments erupt, we guide children in expressing their feelings and needs, in listening, and in coming to mutual solutions.
Active listening. We listen actively to children – to understand their feelings and goals at a specific moment and to reflect them back. Instead of stepping in (ordering them to let kids play), we strive to remain attentive to children without imparting our own feelings, values, or judgments. Our focus is on reflecting back the heart of children’s thoughts or feelings, which helps us to focus on understanding the child, instead of trying to explain, fix, or solve their dilemmas.
When children come to us with a hurt or complaint, we listen closely and restate a condensed version of what we hear. We “check-in” to help make sure we’ve correctly understood the child’s basic message. “It sounds like you were worried your play would be interrupted,” or “Today, she only wanted to play with him, and you’re feeling sad. Are you wondering whether she is still your friend?”
Active listening connects us with children but also models reflecting on their own words and feelings. Over time, we hope they’ll begin to see other perspectives: “How do you think she felt when you said to go away?” Young children are still learning self-regulation and empathy, and trying on another’s feelings can be a startling idea for them.
We may gently push them to own their own choices. Instead of offering a solution, we might ask, “What do you think your next step could be?” The child won’t immediately see the situation from another point of view, but the simple act of seeing that there are lots of possible solutions to a seemingly intractable problem is empowering. By responding with empathy, adults give children the opportunity to pause and move forward when they’re ready to.
As young children grow, they often explore feeling powerful through language, discovering (to our dismay) name-calling and excluding.
Exclusionary play–when friendship hurts:
Excluding is a natural impulse for young children. As two children or a small group solidify their friendship, they may exclude other children from their play. When a child orders another away from her play, she may be thinking, “He and I are in the middle of our pretend play and if another friend joins us now, it will ruin our story.” That thought is often verbalized as, “Go away!” This is because children generally aren’t sure what holds their play together and may fear that the pleasure of their play will be lost if they let another child join in. Exclusionary play can bond two children together: “We are friends if we agree with each other, and right now we both agree on saying ‘no’ to playing with you.”
When engaged in cooperative play, a question keeps coming up for kids: Who’s making the decisions about our play? A lot of negotiating goes on as children experiment with ways to have control over their firefighter or mommy play. This includes threatening: “You have to be the baby brother puppy or you can’t play with us” or “Give me the silver bucket or you can’t come to my birthday party.”
Children also exclude to investigate the role of power in affecting other children’s feelings: “If I say you can’t play here, will it make you cry?”
Kids often don’t understand the boundaries of friendship – if they are playing with someone, then they’re “friends,” and if they’re not playing with someone, they’re “not friends.” This means they might say, “You’re not my friend any more,” rather than “You can’t play with us right now.”
Excluding other children also springs from the cognitive developmental stage in which children begin to categorize. People in their family are different from people not in their family. Realizing that some people are like them and others are different, they often use those categories to exclude other children: “Only boys can play!” “We don’t want anyone here who has short hair!”
Teachers make sure that no child is excluded based on an attribute or affinity with which they are born, like gender, race, ethnicity, or ability, or a social category like family differences.
We include children in problem-solving. A powerful way to approach exclusionary play is to acknowledge the play that is going on. Because kids worry about loss of control of their play, this reassures them. “It looks like you’re building a strong dam for the pond.” Once kids hear their play acknowledged, they have more confidence that it won’t be overridden and less resistance to having someone else join in.
We also might invite children’s ideas about ways their play could be extended to make room for others: “Do you need someone to carry the doctor tools and the groceries?” This often helps children find a way to open their play to another.
Adults might need to find ways to help expand children’s play, so if there isn’t room for more passengers in the wagon, we wonder out loud about bigger ideas: “Do we need to set up a ‘wagon washing’ station?” This way everyone who wants to can join in.
It’s important to make sure the child who’s being excluded has a voice. We don’t speak for children (which puts them in a passive role), but check in with them: “How do you feel about that idea?” or “How does it feel when kids say that?” Whether an excluded child gets into play isn’t as important as being heard when they express their feelings, so we make sure others listen to what she has to say.
We keep play areas open for all children: “The slide is for everyone.” We arrange the classroom to provide limits at times, like the “two-person table” for art projects.
We establish ground rules for safety: “Those are hurtful words. It’s not okay to use those kinds of names with kids. What’s another way to say what you’re trying to say?” or “I wonder if you’re trying to tell her, ‘I just want to play with him right now.’”
Fortunately, as children grow older (though sometimes much older), they are more capable of understanding multiple points of view, thinking through their choices, and predicting natural consequences to events. They become better able to understand that yelling, “Go away!” is not a great way to keep a friend.
Children’s friendships will be developing and changing all through the year (and through the years). Relationships in Preschool and Kindergarten are based on the here-and-now, and supporting them is ongoing work for teachers and parents. As busy adults, it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing judge and jury for social collisions between children. We may say, “Play nice!” or “Time out!” or “I’m going to put that tool away!” none of which are helpful solutions. But as long as we continue to mediate and “resolve” their conflicts for them, we prevent children from practicing those crucial skills themselves. Instead, it’s helpful to think of ourselves as attentive observers and guides for children as they do the work of learning how to be a friend.
Over time, these responses help increase the level of trust between adults and children. Kids learn that we are there for them in this complex process of navigating friendships. With our support, over time, children begin to understand that what they say and do affects others. When they trust that adults respect their ideas and clarify safe limits, they’re more willing to work together toward mutually satisfying solutions, and the rocky road of friendship can be a little smoother.
The lives of your children – their thoughts, strong emotions, and passions – daily emerge into curriculum, as school becomes a part of their life. Thank you for helping children learn to create and sustain cooperative, compassionate, and non-violent friendships! This is a deeply satisfying part of peace-making, something with the potential to change the world.