This post is by regular contributor Kate Fairlie of Picklebums.
My usually bright, feisty, full of life, three year old boy was sullen, withdrawn and sad and it took me the better part of a week to figure out why he suddenly didn’t want to go to preschool any more.
“No one will play with me” he said with tears rolling down his cheeks…
He seems so sad and confused by this strange occurrence, he thought that going to preschool would mean lots of friends and people to play with.
My heart breaks a little for him, but I smile, because I know that going to preschool will mean lots of friends and people to play with, but it will take time to learn how to make friends, how to join in, and how to deal with the disappointment of being told ‘you can’t play’.
Children are not born innately knowing how to play together. Social play is a skill that develops over time and is dependent on a child’s age and stage of development.
Ways to Help a Preschooler Make Friends
1. Don’t expect too much too soon
At around three years of age children are only just taking their very first steps in developing more social play. They most often engage in Parallel Play (see table below). At three to four years of age Associative Play develops and children begin to interact with each other during play, but only sometimes. They are slowly beginning to understand the concept of ‘friendship’ and wanting to play with others.
Expecting children at this stage to play complex, co-operative, social games without adult support is probably expecting too much.
2. Support their Social Play
Young children need adult support to be successful in social situations. Be there when your child plays with others to help them find the words to successfully join in, to guide them when they are not sure and to help when altercations arise.
You don’t need to be a total ‘helicopter parent’ and do nothing but hover about waiting for something to happen, but do be close by and step in if you need to.
3. Model Successful Social Behaviour
Enjoy time with your own friends and family members with your children. Make sure you are modelling positive social interactions and positive social language when interacting with both friends and family.
4. Set Up For Success.
Set up your environment to make social play easy for children. If your child is in the early stages of social play (parallel play) set up activities where they can play next to, but not necessarily with other children. While it may appear that the children are ‘ignoring’ each other, they are actually learning many important social skills from each other by playing side by side and building up their confidence too.
Make sure you have enough toys so that sharing and taking turns is a positive thing. If you only have a dozen blocks between three children no one will have enough blocks to build anything, which is frustrating and not conducive to co-operating.
Help your child practice social skills and develop friendships by organising to spend time with other children at a similar stage of development (who may or may not be the same age, because children all develop skills at different rates), and with similar interests.
Invite the child and a parent over for a play. Having Mum or Dad stay with the visiting child will help give them confidence and make everyone feel more at ease. Keep the play date fairly short in the beginning and set up a few activities that you know both children enjoy so they are actively engaged.
Join a group or activity of interest to your child. While they may not be engaging in ‘active social play’ while at a music class they are still learning and practising many important social skills such as taking turns, listening etc and they are getting to know other children with similar interests.
My boy is at preschool with a group of children who are three or almost four (like he is) so there is still a lot of time for him to practice his social skills and make friends… and I am sure he will.
Which stage of social play is your child in? Have they started to form friendships with other children yet?