Friendship In the Early Years

Posted February 4, 2020

by, Sarah Kern

They are common questions at parent/teacher conferences: Who does she play with? Does she have friends? Who is his best friend? I surprised myself at my daughter’s own parent/teacher conference when the question tumbled out of my mouth: Is there anyone she likes to play with? She’s one year old! Clearly this is on the mind of parents — we want our child to be social, well-liked, and have friends. But how does friendship develop in the early years? There is a typical progression, but it should be said that the development of these skills varies from child to child and is affected by personality and temperament, the environment a child experiences, and any special needs a child may have.

Social awareness begins at birth. Babies prefer to look at faces above all else, and some studies suggest babies can recognize their parents’ faces within a few days of birth. We are programmed to be social, right out of the womb. For one and two year olds, the interest in others begins to grow. In the toddler classroom at All Seasons, we see lots of independent and parallel play. Children are beginning to prefer to be near their peers as they play, but they aren’t quite able to organize play with a peer. Playmate preference is dominated by shared interests. We also see growing empathy at this age — reading emotions and the beginnings of checking in with a classmate who is hurt.  Children are also learning how to enter play, and much about social development can be gleaned by watching this behavior. In fact, asking the question, “Can I play?” is often the beginning a friendship. 

At age three, we see social skills continue to grow. Independent and parallel play continue to play a predominant role. Children this age understand sharing and taking turns, but they may still struggle to consistently implement these skills. Symbolic pretend play becomes more common — a block can now be a cup of coffee, a stick can be a wand. Children this age feel most comfortable joining a group activity, such as playing at the play dough table. Observation and imitation are an important part of development, too. 

At age four, children develop the ability to collaborate and cooperate with peers. Playmate preference increases, and a child may mention a “best” friend at this age. Conversation and negotiation increase, along with increased self-regulation. This is also the age children may begin to exclude others. A child is more likely to proclaim, “You’re not invited to my birthday party!” than they are to hit, and the sting is often worse. Still, children are generally quick to bounce back from this kind of conflict.

At five, play becomes more elaborate, developed, and imaginative. Themes can last an entire playtime and even pick up again at a later time. The ability to take turns, share toys, and understand differing ability levels is generally solid. Helping a younger child is appealing, and the sense of humor grows. 

The adult has an important role to play in the development of these skills. Adults model important social skills, facilitate play, and help children read and respond to social cues. In our mixed age classrooms, peers help each other, too. Many of our students have the opportunity to grow through these stages in the same classroom at All Seasons. It’s a magical thing to watch, and few things are more satisfying to a teacher than a moment of kindness between two children, or the simple answer of “YES” to the question of “Can I play?”