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Children demonstrate the desire and develop the ability to engage and interact with other children.

Positive experiences and relationships with adults help children establish meaningful and special relationships with peers. Children experience interactions and behaviors with adults that help develop the social and emotional skills needed to positively interact with peers.

Children begin to gain self-awareness and demonstrate an interest in other children by simply observing or touching them. Observation and interest lead to imitation and simple interactions, such as handing over a toy or rolling a ball. Older toddlers engage in more complex interactions and social exchanges during play while building social connections. Children this age mainly act on impulses and have difficulty controlling their emotions and behaviors, yet begin to learn appropriate social behaviors through the cues and information that their caregivers model for them.

Peer relationships also play an important role in both the development of children’s self-concept, and the emergence of empathy. Children’s ability to positively engage and play with other children relies on their awareness of others’ feelings and viewpoints.1 As children grow, they gain a basic awareness of what other children are expressing. This awareness eventually grows into understanding and behaving in a manner that is sensitive to what others are feeling. These successful interactions and experiences with others help children build self-confidence and a sense of self-worth. This confidence is important in supporting children’s ability to build and maintain meaningful relationships with their peers.

Stages of Play for Infants and Toddlers

Play is the work of children, a tool that allows them to learn about and explore their world. As children meet developmental milestones, their style of play changes to reflect their growing abilities. Young infants engage in independent play as they explore objects and toys alone. Parallel play starts in the toddler years and is characterized by side-by-side play with similar objects and toys, but seldom involves interaction among children. Associative play is most common in the toddler stage, where children engage in a similar activity but have very little organization or rules.2 All of these different types of interactions in play support children in the development of social skills such as respecting boundaries, turn-taking, sharing, and waiting. All of these skills are important in establishing healthy relationships with peers as children begin to engage in cooperative play with others in the pre-school years.

Birth to 9 months

Children begin to interact with their environment and people around them; an interest in other young children emerges.

Indicators for children include:

  • Demonstrates effort to interact and engage, e.g., uses eye contact, coos, smiles
  • Observes other children in the environment
  • Shows interest in both familiar and unfamiliar peers
  • Cries when hearing another child cry
  • Reaches out to touch another child
  • Attempts to imitate actions, e.g., bangs a toy

Strategies for interaction

  • Respond positively to the child’s coos and vocalizations with both verbal and facial expressions
  • Hold, cuddle, smile, and interact with the child
  • Imitate the child’s sounds and actions in a positive manner
  • Read and play with the child often; if possible, use books that reflect the home culture
  • Engage with the child in exploration and play; follow the child’s lead

7 months to 18 months

Children will begin to observe and imitate other children’s behaviors.

Indicators for children include:

  • Shows interest in another child by moving closer, e.g., rolls, crawls, or walks toward the child
  • Imitates actions of another child, e.g., rolling a car
  • Engages in a simple, reciprocal game such as “pat-a-cake”
  • Begins to engage in parallel play, in closer proximity to other children but no interaction is attempted

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide opportunities for the child to play and interact with other children
  • Model positive interaction while playing and spending time with the child
  • Provide activities that can be done in a group setting, such as singing, movement activities, or reading a story
  • Provide a variety of toys for children to explore and play with

16 months to 24 months

As play and communication matures, children begin to seek out interactions with peers.

Indicators for children include:

  • Gestures in order to communicate a desire to play near a peer
  • Demonstrates enthusiasm around other children
  • Expresses frustration when another child takes something away from him or her, e.g., a toy
  • Begins to engage in simple reciprocal interactions, e.g., rolls a ball back and forth
  • Demonstrates a preference for parallel play, e.g., plays next to other children with similar toys with little or no interaction

Strategies for interaction

  • Recognize and respond thoughtfully to the child’s verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Create a special time when two or three children read a book with a caregiver
  • Acknowledge sharing and thoughtful behaviors, e.g., a child who pats another child who is upset, or when a child hands over a toy to another child
  • Provide more than one of the same toy for the child and his or her peers to play with
  • Use distraction and redirection to help limit conflicts among children

21 months to 36 months

Children engage and maintain interactions with their peers, through the use of developing social and play skills.

Indicators for children include:

  • Demonstrates a preference toward select peers
  • Becomes frustrated with peers, e.g., yells “no” if a peer tries to interfere in something he or she is engaged in
  • Participates in sharing, when prompted
  • Communicates with other children in different settings, e.g., talks to a peer during snack time, or hands a peer a book
  • Begins to engage in more complex play with two or three children

Strategies for interaction

  • Create small groups, each with a caregiver, to share some quality time with particular children
  • Provide toys that can be played with by two or more children at a time
  • Provide activities that encourage sharing, while limiting the risk for frustration, e.g., for art projects, make more than enough art materials available for the children participating


  1. Zero to Three. (2008). Turning the lens to infants’ and toddlers’ peer relationships.
  2. Characteristics of Social Play. An excerpt from Frost, J. L., Wortham, S. C., & Reifel, S. (2008). Play and Child Development (3rd ed., pp. 142–146). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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Reviewed: 2012