No One Will Play With Me: Helping Your Child Make Friends

Helping Your Child Make Friends

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My usually bright, feisty, full of life, three year old boy was sullen, withdrawn and sad and it took me the better part of a week to figure out why he suddenly didn’t want to go to preschool any more.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 Preschoolers 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.

5. Practice!
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?

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  1. My kids are aged 10 (yr5) and 7 (yr2), and still have times where “no one will play with me” or “nobody likes me”.

    I’m finding that as Wren gets closer to her teens she’s having more issues with “so-and-so said such-and-such”.
    (those girls are getting so b*tchy, and from memory it only gets worse)

    Mr Bump is more shy, and tends to feel left out when Wren makes friends at outside places like the local pool.
    He’s slowly learning to be more outgoing, but he seems to find it confusing that Wren finds it so much easier to socialise.

    I have a tough time socialising myself (being sick does that i guess), so I’m not the best role model for them, either :(

    Thanks for the tips, Kate :D

  2. Great post Kate. I’ve been fairly worried about my son (3 in a month) as a lot of his friends go to day care and have more opportunities to play with others. It’s interesting to note that he’s actually recently started (associative) playing with the children at his Playgroup. I think his other friends still scare him a bit as he’s not quite sure what they will do.

    I’ve noticed my son copying my behaviour. In terms of what I say to people when we are leaving and how I act. It’s strange to see a mini me in him, but also is showing me that sometimes I’m a little awkward in that area too.

    • I often think that society places a lot of pressure on people to be social. It often seems like ‘having lots of friends = success’ when I don’t always think that is the case.
      Some people don’t need lots of friends, some people take longer to warm up to people, some people are more shy than others, and none of these things is necessarily a bad thing.
      So I think your boy sounds like a lovely, ‘normal’ three year old who still has plenty of time to make friends and be more social if he chooses.

  3. When our daughter was around 3, she loved playing with older children who interacted with her. Now that she’s 5, she’s able to accommodate for younger children just as it was modeled for her. She used to be slow to warm to new people but homeachooling has helped shorten the time greatly. We were forced to go out and make new friends and these experiences have allowed both of us to break out of our comfort zones. Now she has several groups of friends from different places whom she consider friends.

    • That is such a lovely thing… that your daughter has been shown kindness and care and is now able to show those traits to others. To me that is how the world should work… pay it forward and all that.
      And I really like the idea of having lots of different groups of friends. When my girls changed preschools I thought about changing them to a ballet class that other kids in their group went to, but they loved their current ballet and had made some lovely friends and I decided that it was just as important to have a variety of friends, so we stayed put and have never regretted it.

  4. My daughter is definitely in cooperative play.. and I think nearly always has been. But reading that chart makes me realize that when she was younger, I do remember her playing mostly with herself at the park but alongside others (parallel play) but she’s always been really comfortable engaging with other kids. She really loves having a play mate, whether it’s someone her age or myself and my husband. She is really good at imaginary play, and she does enjoy simply playing and creating by herself but definitely thrives on engaging with others, too.

  5. These are great tips. I’ve been thinking a lot lately that if I want my child to interact postively with others, I need to do a lot of positive modelling myself. I try to really compliment my friends and those I’m with when my daughter is in hearing range so she’ll think more about doing this too.

  6. My 3 year old is *extremely* sociable. She has to be right in the middle of the action all the time. (I don’t know know where she gets it. Really. If you knew her dad and I and our hermit ways..) Seems every time I turn around, she’s holding hands with a new friend. And if there’s no one around to play with, she’ll stand right in the middle of the playground and holler, “I have NO friends!!”
    Just goes to show, what an individual personality each child has!

  7. This is a wonderful article – what a great resource to share with parents!

  8. Wonderful, informative post. Great to have an understanding of the various development stages of play so I know when I should step in or just leave them to it. Thanks!

  9. I just finished reading You Can’t Say You Can’t Play by Vivian Gussin Paley and found it so interesting. The author made the above rule, after much discussion with the children, in her kindergarten class and the kids learned how to incorporate anyone who asked into their play. I highly recommend it. So I guess my point is not only do you want to teach your kids how to ask to play, but how to incorporate someone else who asks. Right now my 4 yr old is just starting to enter cooperative play. After reading this book I asked her if kids had told her she couldn’t play and she said yes. She was very confused because they told her she wasn’t their friend, but she says they are friends. :(

    • You Can’t Say is a fabulous book isn’t it! It really raised a lot of questions for me when I read it when teaching and again later as a parent. I think it is an excellent point… being social and making friends isn’t just about how to join in but also how to accept others and invite others into your play respectfully.

  10. Thank you for this! My son just turned three and is quite shy. I was trying to figure out how to teach him to be less socially awkward, but I think it will happen on its own.

    • Yes.. most kids, given a little time, support and love, will sort this stuff out on their own. It is usually just us parents who worry over nothing :)

  11. Kathryn E. says:

    But what do you actually “say” to the child that says no one wants to play with me. What words do I use? What practical advice do you give them? I work with many children for a short period of time daily and this comment stumps me.

  12. Angelique du preez says:

    My boy aged 4.1/2, broke my heart the other day when i asked how his day at school was! He replied: good but not so good today i was tiered of asking kids to play with me so i sat down by the playgound and waited for someone to ask me to play! And no one came to ask!!!!
    Every day he would say that he asked someone to play and they always reject him unless they dont have their usual playmate (for unknown reasons)
    How you you comfort him with positive words?

    • We are running into this as well with our 3 year old. He is at a new daycare and says he has no friends. We are working with the staff to try to get him more involved with the other kids. We can only do so much, and the staff seems great, but only time will tell. Maybe talk to the staff and see if there are ways to get him included more with the group of kids playing? Seems to me he’s trying to be social, which I think is a good step.

      Totally get the heartbreaking part. It stings quite a bit to hear things like that. I hope the situation improves for you.

  13. My niece is 8 very intelligent and was offered to skip a grade. She has 2 brothers 20 and 10 both of them are autistic and hermits. The brothers want to play alone and she is a social butterfly and always wants them to play with her. She does not like playing alone. She can read better than the two brothers combined for her age. I don’t know what to do. Her parents are distant and no one will set up play dates with her classmates and friends from school. I am worried this is going to have problems later on with her confidence and esteem, social skills, and overall resentment towards people. Any advise ?


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