By springtime in the preschool/kindergarten year, children have become comfortable enough with each other that intense friendships can occur. This is the beginning of the "best friends" stage. These friendships are wonderful because children are beginning to see the value of sharing play (and materials) with others. But they can be problematic too, because kids are not yet clear on how to be fast friends without hurting or excluding others.
The Importance of Developing Friendships
First, let's look at how these first friendships develop. 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds are at the delightful stage when they discover the joy of playing with others. Children approach new friendships in different ways, depending on their experiences and temperament. Some may rush in and want to play with everybody, and others will watch from the sidelines for a while before jumping in. All these approaches are normal and need to be respected. If your child is reticent about making friends, you can support his friend-making style and at the same time create ways for him to develop confidence and friendships at home.
A major factor in friendship-building at this stage is self-confidence and the ability to communicate. These are gifts that come from your child's very first and most important friendship — with you. Children who have learned through family interactions how to communicate ideas and feelings are more confident in school and make friends more easily. Children who are friendly, confident, cooperative, and curious are ready to learn and are most likely to succeed in school.
Children in preschool and kindergarten want to belong not only to the entire classroom group, but also to a small circle of personal friends. This is when the "best friends" stage emerges. Of course, that best friend can change weekly or even daily! Don't be surprised if one day your child says Bella is her "best friend in the whole wide world" and several days later she says it is Peter. After she tries on many different relationships, she may settle down to a consistent "best" friend or two.
Intense friendships can develop an attitude of possessive exclusivity. Sometimes it is harder for youngsters to share a friend than a toy. While teachers want to support budding friendships, it is also important for them to create opportunities each day for children to work and play with different classmates. Teachers often make an effort to mix things up at large or small group time, and during outdoor games and transition times, by assigning children different partners or groups. This allows them to experience and appreciate the unique diversity of their class, while helping reduce the possessiveness of cliques.
Young children are also learning empathy, an understanding of how it feels to be left out. One of the best ways to teach this value is with books. Children often can relate to a character's feelings better than a real person's. You can also try these strategies at home to help your child be a good friend:
- Set up play-dates: Friendships that are forged in the safety of the home usually hold true in the classroom. It is much easier to make connections one on one. Encourage your child to play with new and different children.
- Treasure hunt: Invite a school or neighborhood friend to play a treasure hunt game around the house. Hide parts of a puzzle or a building toy for children to find and put together to create something cooperatively!
- I feel...: At the end of the day, talk about how you feel and why. Invite your child to share how he feels too. You will be developing his feelings vocabulary and budding sense of empathy.