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Learning to Get Along with Friends

Originally published:

Children playing with blocks

As children grow into their preschool years, they often want to play with a friend, whether through a play date at home or with a friend at child care/preschool.

How can you, as a parent, help your child form and enjoy friendships? If your child has a developmental delay, then he may be a bit slower at talking or running or engaging in make-believe compared with his peers. Will this interfere with making friends? Hopefully not, because most young children are very accepting of a range of differences. But you can help by planning play times that are positive and thinking about ways to support the play.

If you plan a play date at home, be sure to set a firm start and end time so that the date ends while children are still enjoying each other’s company. Choose several activities to keep the children interested and engaged. Most preschools limit free play to an hour and provide a range of activities for children to join. This time frame is a good idea for home play as well.

You know your child best and whether he will play well with one friend or may enjoy having two or three friends over. Once you decide whom to invite, consider both indoor and outdoor play, depending on the weather. Children love to climb, slide, and run and often have energy to expend when they visit a friend’s home. You may want to plan for this high energy time first and introduce quieter activities later.

Children love simple snacks, which also can divide the outdoor-indoor play time. They can help each other set up a snack table with crackers and cheese or vegetables and dip. Your role as parent is to watch and guide to make sure that interactions are safe, positive, and reciprocal. With some children, the parent may need to be actively involved to support the children’s play skills. If so, give children choices and help them plan what they want to do next.

For example, do you want to play with the Legos and Duplos or with cars and trucks? Make sure that there are enough materials for each child to be involved and even model sharing and building with the toys. Keep the time and tone positive by complementing your child and his friends for sharing, for being kind, and for playing well together. Let them know that you expect them to ask you for help, if they need it, or to do something else if they become bored with an activity.

It’s fine to set a few basic rules to support “being a friend,” such as sharing, using words to ask for things, and staying together. These rules also imply “no fighting or hitting.” If fighting or teasing occurs, interrupt it and try to identify the cause or purpose. Is one child seeking adult attention to avoid the activity? Or is a child using rough and tumble play to get a friend’s attention? Is a child grabbing another’s toy without first asking? You can help them identify the problem and the solution if you are present and observant.

For instance, it looks like Chris and Tyler both want the fire truck and there is only one. Ask them, “What can you do so both of you are happy?” Help them reach a solution by providing choices: “Chris can play with it for five minutes and then Tyler can play with it.” Or, “let’s put the fire truck up for a while and choose which of the other trucks you’d like to play with.” It may be helpful for you to engage both children in what to do or pretend with the trucks, such as “Shall we pretend to dig up dirt?”

Children learn to negotiate with each other during play time—it’s why we say child’s play is learning. You can assist your child by providing support when needed. As your child becomes more independent, you can take a back seat and watch more than help with their play activities.

Susan Fowler

Susan Fowler

Dr. Susan Fowler is a retired professor of special education at the University of Illinois. Susan’s doctorate was in developmental and child psychology and she was one of the pioneers in early childhood special education and developmental disabilities. She also is a parent of a young man with exceptionalities.

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About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Home

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Related IEL Birth to Three Guidelines:
Related Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards:
Reviewed: 2024