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Supporting Young Children’s Friendships

children sharing

Adults can provide opportunities for young children to play alongside and with other children. Whether in a playgroup, at a playground, in a childcare center, or at home with friends, children notice what other children are doing very early. Infants turn to other infants and begin to imitate their peers. Toddlers watch their peers, play next to them, and often show preference to certain playmates. Preschoolers often start to demonstrate complex friendship skills, including reading cues, understanding others’ feelings, and resolving conflicts. This tool kit includes information on the development of skills needed to develop friendships, strategies adults can use to support young children at home and in the classroom, and tips to help children reconnect after a long separation. 

Social Development

  • Positive relationships with adults help children establish positive relationships with peers. The Illinois Early Learning Guidelines for Children Birth to Age Three provide descriptions of the beginning stages of friendships, indicators of skill progression, and strategies that adults can use to support infants and toddlers in Domain 1: Relationships with Peers
  • Preschoolers continue to build friendship skills. The Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards describe empathy, attachment, and positive peer relationships as important building blocks to competent friendship skills in the Social/Emotional Development Domain.  
  • Language and communication skills are powerful building blocks to developing friendships. Parents and caregivers can support peer relationships among infants and toddlers.
  • Preschoolers are beginning to understand that their feelings may differ from others. As preschoolers’ language skills blossom, their peer interactions become more elaborate.

Adult’s Role

At Home

  • At home, adults can talk with young children about taking turns and sharing and help them talk through problems. IEL’s Work and Play Together tip sheet offers additional suggestions.   
  • Friendships are important to young children, including children with disabilities or delays. Adults can plan a play date that includes several indoor and outdoor activities, snack time, and staying close by to assist with potential conflicts. This Learning to Get Along with Friends blog post and Making and Keeping Friends tip sheet provide more examples of strategies adults can use.  
  • Adults can encourage caring behavior by modeling empathy and providing opportunities for children to work and play together. Additional ideas are found on our Kids Who Care tip sheet. 
  • In this article, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that adults give young children the space to practice social skills on their own. Parents can talk to children about interests and feelings in preparation for a play date or play group. There may also be a time to step in to help resolve any conflict or find a compromise to an issue. 
  • It is important for adults to understand the stages of friendships and the skills needed for each stage. Adults can model empathy, show inclusion, and hold children accountable for their behavior to foster strong friendship skills. This Scholastic article provides additional strategies to help your child learn to be a good friend and deal with difficult social situations when they arise.    

In the Classroom

  • This IEL podcast provides information about the benefits that children get from having friendships with peers. If adults are concerned about a child’s ability to make friends, the guest suggests teaching social skills in circle time or small groups or providing one-on-one instruction on joining a group. 
  • When young children have conflicts, it is important for adults to know when to step in to keep children from hurting each other or being unfair. Helping Children Learn to Get Along, a tip sheet from IEL, provides suggestions on steps to take to teach conflict resolution skills, including identifying the problem, helping children cool off, and reinforcing positive behavior.
  • Teachers can set up the learning environment to support developing relationships by arranging the room with adequate materials and providing materials that support collaboration. Additional ideas are provided in this NAEYC article.  
  • Children with disabilities and developmental delays may require extra support in developing and maintaining friendships with their peers. Adults can pair specific children together, provide adaptive equipment for those that need assistance physically joining an activity, and provide special activities to encourage playing together. Additional strategies are outlined in the article Promising Practices to Support Friendships in Inclusive Classrooms
  • In this video presentation, Dr. Lilian Katz suggests that impulse control, turn-taking, negotiation, compromise, conflict resolution, and additional friendship skills can be supported in the classroom by clearly stating what you want and keeping statements simple.  

Reconnecting Friendships

  • When in-person activities were paused during the COVID-19 pandemic, many children were unable to play with friends. It is important to acknowledge these feelings and model healthy coping strategies during this time. Adults can support young children using additional tips in this IEL blog post.  
  • Separation from friends or loved ones can be traumatic for young children. Adults can help to encourage appropriate play for young children by talking about the friends they miss, maintaining routines as much as possible, and role-playing interactions such as asking a friend to play or asking for a toy. Child Mind Institute offers these tips and more in this article.  
  • Adults may be concerned about their children’s social skills after a separation. This ADDitute magazine article suggests that by playing positively with young children, they can practice and maintain critical social skills, including sharing and listening to others. Playing games and reading books can help young children learn to take turns and learn about others’ feelings.  

IEL Resources

Web Resources

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Home
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

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: 2021