For many children, preschools or childcare centers present the first opportunities for children to meet a group of new peers. Knowing how to help your child make friends at school can help them transition into the new environment. Learning how to get along with others at a young age helps build a strong foundation for positive relationships with peers and productive social interactions.
Friendships at young ages look very different than what we experience as adults. Friends, for preschoolers, are often momentary playmates. Rather than based on similar backgrounds or common interests, these friendships are often centered on whatever play your child is most drawn to at the moment and who is nearby and wants to join in on the fun. And, as your child’s interests and preferences shift, the peers they consider friends change as well.
As children near age 5, friendships often move beyond relationships based on play and proximity. At this age, children start to equate friendships with kindness, sharing, and pleasant interactions. They begin to be more discerning about their friendships and seek out specific friends who they enjoy being around.
Some young children jump right in to social play and interaction, while others are a bit more cautious as they encounter new peers. Some children are quick to develop friendships and others take time to feel comfortable interacting with those outside of their home. All children, however, can benefit from some guided support and practice in playing together and forming friendships.
Here are some tips for how to help your child make friends:
Model how to introduce yourself. Demonstrate for your child what it looks like to meet a new friend. Use opportunities in your daily life to teach your child to say hello to other children and introduce themself. You might first introduce yourself and then give your child the opportunity to do the same, helping them find the right words if they are unsure of what to say.
Encourage playtime with others. If you find yourself at a playground with other children, find ways to connect your child with similar-aged peers. You might invite the other children into your child’s play by asking, “Would you like to swing together or play together in the sand?” Or, you might model asking if your child can join in with others as they play.
Practice sharing and taking turns. Developmentally, sharing and taking turns are often very challenging for young children. When your child is playing with a sibling or friend and both want to play with the same toy or disagree about what activity to do, you might set a timer to give your child an external cue for when it is time to switch. When you see your child sharing or taking turns, make sure to celebrate their kindness and generosity to positively reinforce the behavior.
Set up a one-on-one play date. Large groups or brand new settings can feel overwhelming for young children. Consider setting up a one-on-one playdate with a new friend from preschool either at your home or a familiar playground. This is a great way to practice some early friendship skills in a low-stress setting. And, these experiences foster a friendship that can extend into their time at school.
Pause and reflect with your child. Try to build these ideas on how to help your child make friends into regular family conversations. After school, you might ask your child who they played with that day, what they played, who was a good friend to them, and why. You might also ask if they were a good friend to anyone else and how they showed kindness to others. When reading a book, point out if a character is a good friend to others in the story. These conversations and reflections reinforce the qualities and behaviors that help build friendships with others.
For more tips on how to help your child make friends, visit the Child Mind Institute’s Kids Who Need a Little Help to Make Friends: What Parents Can Do When Kids Struggle with Social Skills.