Friendship is a gift that even preschoolers can give and receive. Being a friend, and having a friend, offers real benefits to young children.
How Friendship Grows
At around age three, preschoolers begin to become interested in playing with other children. They make friends based on similarity (“We’re both boys!” or “We’re both three!”) and proximity (being neighbors or classmates). But they may not see their relationship as “friendship.” Instead, they just enjoy having playmates and playing with the same toys.
Older preschoolers (ages four and five) are starting to learn what it means to be a friend: Being aware of what their buddies are thinking and feeling, learning how to share and take turns, and coming up with “rules” for their play that everyone can follow. They are also starting to have the vocabulary to explain what they’re thinking and feeling.
What Kids Get from Friendship
There are many pluses to playing with pals! It is through friendship and play that little ones gain:
- Social skills: To succeed in school and in life, children need to learn how to share, take turns, listen to others, and participate in the give-and-take of conversation. They practice all of these when interacting with peers and playmates.
- Emotional skills: Through friends, kids learn how to empathize (“My friend might feel sad if he doesn’t get a turn”) and how to be flexible with their thinking (“If no one else wants to play house, maybe we can play school instead”).
- Security and belonging: Being part of a group of friendly faces helps kids feel secure. When they do, it’s easier for them to learn because they’re not dealing with as many big feelings about unfamiliar people and places.
- Higher self-esteem: Knowing that others like them can help preschoolers feel more confident.
- Stress relief: Whether it’s that security that comes from having a good buddy, or the laughs they share together, friendship helps reduce feelings of stress.
What to Do
As the parent of a preschooler, you can help your child make friends and be a good friend. Set the scene by helping your child invite friends for playdates or playground meetups. Don’t assume that time together at preschool is enough. One-on-one or small-group gatherings are valuable too. Some kids thrive on big, noisy groups, while others need those calmer, smaller get-togethers.
Role-play any friendship skills your child is having trouble with, such as sharing, taking turns, resolving conflicts, or joining a group. Before a playdate, discuss what your child might do and say, like asking her friend: “Do you want to play with blocks, or dress up?” Afterward, talk over any trouble spots you overheard—and praise your child for positive behaviors: “I noticed you let Kai use your favorite truck, and he really enjoyed that.” These get-along games help; you can play them with your child to help him practice, and also bring them out during playdates.