Enter any kindergarten classroom, and you'll hear the sounds of children freely interacting with one another as their circle of play expands and contracts. Many 5- and 6-year-olds demonstrate different stages of interaction – from the isolated and parallel play of younger children to the fully cooperative play of older ones. Sometimes these stages occur all at once and sometimes in succession. Kindergartners are experimenting with all their skills as they test out the environment, each other, and you.
An Irregular Pattern
At the beginning of the year, 5-year-olds may return to old patterns of interaction that feel safe and comfortable. These periods may last for a day or for a few weeks. Supporting children in their experimentation (and not forcing them to interact before they are ready) helps them acclimate quickly. Some children may need to be your "silent partner." They will be interested in everything but need you as the home base to observe from — and eventually venture off from.
More Confident Explorers
A fuller sense of self, as well as stronger verbal and physical skills, enables kindergartners to interact with one another with more confidence and joy. Of course, they'll need time to settle in. Children will check each other out from afar and then jump in with two feet — only to turn around and repeat the sequence with another child. The key is to go along with these rapid changes and remember that you are still in the settling-in period.
Serious About Friendships
While kindergartners are more relaxed about making friends, their friendships are very important to them. They worry and think about whom they'll play with the next day – and whom they play with can become more important than what they play. Throughout the year, you'll see more and more emphasis on friendships and even the development of cliques that exclude other children.
What You Can Do
Here are some ways to help kindergartners make friends:
- Encourage group conversations. Focus on discussions that help set a tone of cooperation and friendship.
- Provide activities that invite participation. A comfortable book nook and quiet writing center are great additions to any classroom and will provide opportunities for small-group as well as individual participation. Keep large group activities enjoyable, simple, and short.
- Involve the class in solving problems. Discuss the issues and model ways that problems children are having with one another can be resolved.
- Encourage family involvement. It's helpful in your classroom when parents invite children's friends over for play dates.
What to Expect Next
- Most 7- and 8-year-olds are even more aware of friendships than kindergartners are. Having a special friend to sit next to on the bus or at lunch, or someone to play with at recess, becomes imperative to some children as they face a much more expanded school life. The world just feels safer when you have a buddy!
- At the same time, empathy is beginning to develop, so that 7- and 8-year-olds are more aware of the effect that shifting allegiances has on others. Children who are becoming concerned about others' feelings will try to help friends work out problems.
- This is an age at which the need to be independent and the need to be part of a group are both strong. Partner and small-group work are essential to children's development. They need opportunities to work on curriculum-related independent studies in groups of twos and threes.