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Early Childhood Today

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Ages & Stages: How Children Build Friendships

Your support and sensitive approach to children’s relationships can foster budding friendships in the classroom.

0 to 2 by Carla Poole


Four-month-old Emma gurgles and coos as she sends an inviting glance toward her teacher. They make eye contact and her teacher responds with a playful, "You have so much to tell me!" A bright smile spreads from baby to teacher. Emma is learning that her world is a friendly place. The attachments she forms in early infancy are the prototypes for later friendships.

A baby is primed to form relationships. She naturally responds to the human voice and imitates facial expressions early on. She will signal invitations to play by catching your eye or calling out with babble. A playful response encourages these signals and enhances the baby's sense of self. You are her first model for relating to other people in respectful, cooperative friendships.

Learning by Imitation

In the early stages of friendship, young toddlers learn from one another through imitation and parallel play. Imagine a small group of toddlers playing at a water table. One boy makes a funny sound by blowing into a long tube with one end in the water. When he is finished experimenting with the tube, he drops it. Another toddler quickly picks it up and imitates him by making the same funny sound! This "Me too!" tendency of toddlers is their way of developing friendships, not yet reciprocal interactions but a positive social and cognitive experience. Even when toddlers are playing side by side, without much interaction, they are still picking up play behaviors from one another. These shared experiences help toddlers gain the play "vocabulary" they'll need when they begin to play with friends.

You're the Coach!

Your guidance makes a positive difference in toddlers' social skills. We know that toddlers understand much more language than they can express. So take the time to do some "emotional coaching." Use simple but clear language, "Nicholas is sad because you took his shovel." be sure to comment on cooperative play as well. "Julia really likes to play on the slide with you!" This helps the toddler become more aware of his own, as well as his friend's, actions and feelings.

A Developing Awareness

Young toddlers do not yet understand anyone else's point of view but their own! What looks like empathy, like crying when another toddler cries, is more of an expression of their own feelings of sadness. Conversely, a swat at another toddler's face can be a toddler's excited way of inviting play.

At around 18 months, there are notable changes in cognitive skills that help real friendships blossom. The toddler becomes more consciously aware of herself and others. She begins to use the words me and mine. This stronger sense of self also helps the toddler become more aware of how other people feel. If another child is crying, the older toddler is more empathetic and tries to comfort her with hugs. An emerging understanding of cause and effect helps the toddler to know that grabbing her friend's shovel will make him cry. An equally new understanding of order and sequence gives the senior toddler the tools to begin to take turns.

Promoting Give and Take

These emerging thinking skills are embedded in the emotional life of the toddler who often struggles with urgent and sometimes volatile feelings. For instance, the 2-year-old's strong push toward independence and autonomy might take the form of grabbing her friend's shovel even though she knows her teacher won't approve - and her friend will cry. The child's need for feelings of control or power become focused on possessing that particular shovel, no matter what!

How you intervene can make a difference in how the child learns to navigate the give and take of friendship. Give her the language so that she can label and express her needs. "You really want that shovel, but Nicholas is using it now. You can use it when he is finished. It is so hard to wait for something you really want." Empathize with the toddler while you set clear social rules. You can offer an alternative toy but refrain from quickly distracting her. Give her a moment to think about how she is feeling and adapt to the demands that come with learning how to play with other children. Sometimes 2-year-olds who are having a conflict can work things out themselves, so wait that extra moment before moving in. Developing friendships depends on the toddler's growing ability to regulate or control herself.

A friendship between two toddlers can be very intimate and meaningful, especially when they are together each day. Respect and honor these important relationships by keeping friends in the same group or classroom as long as possible.

What You Can Do

  • Place sitting infants near each other and face-to-face while they play so they can become aware of each other.
  • Plan small group activities for toddlers.
  • Think about having a cozy corner just big enough for a pair of toddlers to sit and look at books.
  • Offer toddlers time and space to play by themselves so they can take a break from the hard work of making friends!

3 to 4 by Susan A. Miller, EdD


Four-year-old Owen and 5-year-old Chris have been best friends since they started preschool together last year. Now that Chris has moved on to kindergarten, Owen feels a strong sense of sadness. He asks his Mom if she thinks he will ever again see Chris again.

Forming Attachments

As part of their social development process, 4-year-olds are beginning to form deeper attachments to special buddies, especially those of the same sex. This makes losing friends particularly stressful.

Emotionally, fours are starting to look at things from another's perspective. However, when a preschooler is not able to maintain playing with a special friend because of something she cannot control, her behavior frequently becomes rather egocentric. For example, when Julia's Mom arrives early to take her home, this upsets Laura. She carries on and demands to know, "Why does she have to go home and leave me?" She is apt to feel that a good friendship involves the other person doing what she wants her to do.

Fleeting Friendships

For 3-year-olds, who still have some difficulty in seeing things from another child's point of view, friendships are more fleeting. Threes are still practicing their necessary social strategies and have more limited communication skills. These young preschoolers usually base their friendships on one of the following: How physically close is the other child? Is she playing with something of interest? Does she have appealing physical features?

Three-year-old Lyla's friend, at this moment, is Olivia, who is playing alongside her with a fascinating marble game. However, by the afternoon, Tracy could be Lyla's new friend. This may be only because Tracy is sitting next to LyIa on the floor reading a bright new picture book. If Lyla grabs the book to see the pictures, the friendship could immediately end. Tracy may not understand that Lyla might have a need to share or move the book closer to see. Competition over desirable materials can quickly end a friendship. Threes may restart their friendship or they might just as easily move on to other children or other activities of interest.

Moving Toward Cooperation

With longer-lasting friendships than the threes, the 4-year-olds become more cooperative in their relationships. They have a desire to interact with others and participate in collaborative play activities. Cooperation is certainly one way to help maintain a friendship. How well they relate to other children is due to their emerging social competence. When preschoolers can acknowledge others' ideas through shared planning, and use them in play, these positive interactions help sustain friendships.

Problems arise when one person takes a leadership role and expects another child to follow along. When that doesn't happen, the friendship may fall apart. For instance, Brendan decides, "I am the captain." Not pleased with this decision, Julio tells him, "I'm flying to a better galaxy." After such a conflict, the 4-year-olds need to determine whether they want their independence or are willing to cooperate with one another to maintain the friendship.

What You Can Do

  • Because it can be difficult for children to understand how their behavior affects friendships, coach them early on. For example, if Beth hits Savanna to get her attention, explain that she could instead say, "Savanna, I want to play with the doll, too."
  • Children need to have a variety of experience interacting with their peers to practice their social skills. Provide collaborative interest centers, offer blocks for building together, and promote dancing with music. Keep play simple by encouraging pairs to work together.
  • Read books such as Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel (HarperCollins, 1979) which recounts the adventures of two best friends. Talk about the problems different story characters have and what they do about them.

5 TO 6 by Ellen Booth Church


Five-year-old Pablo, just settling into the routine of his new kindergarten class, is cruising for friends. he moves from group to group, trying to find a way to join in. Eventually, he sits down with a group at the art table. Imagine his delight when Natalie casually says, "Want to use my blue crayon too, Pablo?"

The ever-changing world of kindergarten takes on a special "friendship" focus in October. Most children are now comfortable with the classroom and the program and are at a stage when they look beyond the world of self to what lies beyond in the world of others. Five-year-olds are genuinely curious about others. They ask questions about their classmates, experiment with friendships, and experience the joy of sharing an activity with another child. This curiosity of others and the relationships they can create together empowers 5-year-olds to take the risk to spontaneously attempt to make connections with others. While they are often clumsy with their initial attempts at engagement, kindergartners are rarely daunted! Our role as teachers is to provide a supportive and flexible classroom environment that offers children the freedom to safely explore all aspects of friendship.

Notice Me!

Some children will try anything just to be noticed by another child. You have probably seen children walk by children building with blocks and purposefully knock their tower down-just to get attention! It's not a very successful technique for friendship building, but it does get a reaction and a level of communication has to take place. You can help children by suggesting ways they can ask their classmates if they can play, or suggest they build a tower nearby and invite the children to find a way to connect the two structures!

Children on Stand-By

Some children will stand by others who are playing in hopes of being invited "in." This approach sometimes works, but it helps if there is something for the child to do too. If you notice a child has been standing nearby a group of children for awhile, step in and give him a role or job to do that will inspire engagement with the others. For example, 6-year-old Scotty wanted to play house with the others but didn't know how to get involved. he would stand and watch until the other children got uncomfortable and complained. His teacher joined the "tea party" and declared that they were out of milk and sugar for the tea and sent Scotty to the "store" for the ingredients. His radiant smile indicated that this was the invitation he needed. When he came back with the pretend items, he was thanked by the group and easily incorporated into the play.

Making Friends With Ease

There are always those children who come to kindergarten each year with a natural, friendly ease with others. They can be children who have had many previous experiences with groups of other children in or outside the home. But also, there are certain children who are naturally gregarious and truly enjoy not only sharing and playing with others, but also helping children make friends! Take advantage of opportunities to enlist these children's skills and abilities to support friendship making in your classroom.

Practice! Practice!

Friendships take practice-and that is exactly what kindergartners are doing when they experiment with different friendship configurations. They are testing the waters of relationships by trying all sides. Sometimes children will try being the leader and other times the follower. Throughout all this practice, there will be times of harmony and times of conflict. The important thing to remember is that 5- and 6-year-olds need all this practice-the good and the bad. Some of the most growth-filled parts of these "relationship rehearsals" happen in the arguments that arise. While as adults we often want to step in and stop or solve arguments for children, we need to remember that a mild argument is a very normal way for people to learn about each other. It is also an important way to experiment with the power of expressive language.

Observe an argument from the sidelines and only step in if things start getting too loud or intense. This is one way children learn that they can work out their own problems. Not surprisingly, some of these arguments can lead to the deepest friendships!

Emerging Empathy

Kindergartners are also learning empathy - an important part of being a friend. They are beginning to be able to see another's point of view, but it's usually within in the context of how it effects them personally. Later in the school year, with many opportunities for interactions under their belt, kindergartners can demonstrate a stronger sense of empathy. They have an increased ability to truly feel what another might be feeling. It is at this point that children's friendships take on a deeper sense of commitment.

Five- and 6-year-olds are learning how to choose friends and change them, how to create alliances and deal with challengers. The process of making friends can be happy one day and painful the next. But it is all part of learning how to not only make friends-but how to be a friend.

Best Friends

Children in kindergarten are at a stage of development when they desire to belongnot only to the group-but also to a small circle of personal friends or even a "best" friend. Of course, that "best friend" can change weekly or even daily! Don't be surprised if one day a child says Bernadette is her "best friend in the whole wide world" and several days later she says it is Devin. Later in the year, after many different relationships have been experimented with, children often do settle down to a consistent "best friend" or two.

Finding Their Identities

At this stage of development, children have a stronger sense of identity within a group than ever before. They are learning how to speak up for themselves, to express their own special interests and style. One 5-year-old often arrived at kindergarten dressed as a pirate and greeted the group with a hearty "Ahoy there mates!" This delightfully growing sense of self-awareness allows children to actively experiment with the roller coaster ride of friendship. As children explore relationships with others, they are developing their own friendship identities. Certain children find they like to be the leader or the person with the "ideas." Others really enjoy the role of following and trying out those ideas. It takes all kinds of people in life to make life interesting, and happily, we never have a classroom of all one type of child!

What You Can Do:

Kindergartners sometimes need assistance in making friends. Here are a few suggestions to try:

  • Pair children up for activities or transitions. Change the pairing frequently, so children can meet and experience many different children.
  • After children have experimented with different combinations, notice which combinations work well. Some children can balance each other in temperament, while others can cause a catalytic reaction!
  • Invite the class to discuss appropriate techniques for interacting. Ask children to say how they feel when someone knocks over their toys and then suggest what would feel better!
  • Encourage families to set up play dates with classmates. Friendships forged in the safety of the home usually hold true in the classroom. It is much easier to make connections one-on-one.

About the Author

Carla Poole is an advisor in the infant-parent development program at Bank Street College of Education in New York and a child development specialist at Bellevue Hospital.

Susan A. Miller, EdD, an experienced teacher and director, is a professor of early childhood education at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. 

Ellen Booth Church is a former professor of early childhood, a current educational consultant, keynote speaker, and author.

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