Miss Gentry urged her kindergartners to make “big smiles” as she snapped a group picture during their last week of school. She used her scanner to create 25 prints so that each child had a personal copy of the photo labeled “Kindergarten Friends.” Then, the children drew their own pictures of some of their favorite activities that they had shared with special friends during the school year. Miss Gentry bound these drawings into two “memory books” for the class to read together on the last day of school. Then, she gave a book to each of the two boys who were moving away during the summer so they could remember their friends. The rest of the children in the group would also be scattered in the fall, uprooting friendships. Some would be assigned to various first grade teachers, while others would attend different schools in the area.

At first glance, these changes seem to be related to the physical movements of the children, but the immediate impact upon these “kindergarten friends” is really more social and emotional in nature. The relationships of these young friends are a bit like riding on the amusement park roller coaster during summer vacation. There are exciting highs, unanticipated lows, and challenging loop-the-loops, along with many changes as new children join in to begin their ride and others go in different directions after they hop off. You can help children through these highs, lows, challenges, and changes by encouraging them to make and maintain relationships throughout the school year.

The Importance of Friendships

While probing various themes in the school curriculum, young children are asked to look into the seasons and investigate the weather, but they seldom explore the topic of friendships. However, children weave in and out of relationships with friends all of the time — at school, in the park, at the pool, during vacations, in playgroups, at summer camp, in religious programs, through sporting events, and so forth. To facilitate making friends and fostering these friendships, you might like to introduce some of these ideas into your curriculum throughout the year. Many of these activities you can also use for an end-of-the-year review.

  • Use puppets to share suggestions about initiating contact with others in order to make friends. Practice making eye contact and using some simple introductory questions, like my six-year-old grandson Adam’s favorite ice-breaker, “How old are you?” Have them try out some feelers to join in existing play, such as, “Could I drive my truck on your road?” Encourage a puppet friend to propose sharing an item. For example, “Oh, look, you have a pail. I have a shovel. Let’s dig.” Demonstrate how to offer the item to join a friend in play.
  • Write a list on chart paper of traits the children enjoy in a friend, such as “helps me,” “sits by me at snack,” “builds with me,” and “laughs.” Hang up the list and keep adding to it as the children discover new things about each other.
  • Use a camera to capture various friends playing together. Print out the photos and make mini-posters so the children can identify the friends and discuss what is happening. Invite the children to dictate the text for the posters so they can read the words together.
  • Encourage children to become “Problem-Solving Players” and act out roles in different friendship scenarios, such as: what to do when a friend doesn’t want to let you play or what to do when your best friend moves away. Motivate the children to brainstorm and act out various approaches and solutions. As they work through these suggestions, it helps them learn to develop their empathy and their communication and negotiation skills with friends.

Continuing Friendships

In addition to nurturing friendships throughout the year, it is also important for you, like Miss Gentry, to help young children foster these friendships so they don’t end abruptly. Whether friends are parting temporarily for the summer or more permanently, at the very least, children should be encouraged to create thoughtful good-byes and to stay in touch with each other.

Because this can be a very emotional time for some children, especially those who have become best friends, you may wish to enlist the parents’ help with some of these ideas.

  • Be a good listener. Some children may be quite sad or even angry that they won’t be seeing their best friend. Help them with words so they can understand their feelings. For instance you might say, “I know you are missing Peter. It is making you feel sad, isn’t it?”
  • Help the children remember and share their fun times together. Have them create postcards out of photos of favorite things they did together like silly dress-ups or building snowmen. Or, encourage best friends to draw and mail picture letters to each other.
  • As a special token of their friendship, interested friends may wish to design matching baked homemade play dough necklaces. Or, a friend could decorate a unique handcrafted picture frame with colored pebbles and glitter-glue to hold a special photo of them together.
  • At mid-summer, I would host a playground potluck picnic at the school for my preschoolers and their families. The children were always excited to see their friends and quickly resumed their favorite play activities during this informal reunion.

Ready for School Again

Even though many children may return to the same school or preschool program in August or September, there will be new faces and new situations to greet them. You may want to read and discuss some books with them like Will I Have a Friend? by Miriam Cohen (Aladdin, 1989), in which a little boy worries about his first day of school until he makes a connection with another child, or New Friends, True Friends, Stuck-Like-Glue Friends by Virginia Kroll (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), which explores a variety of friendships.

Of course the children will see first-hand how to meet new friends as you model positive strategies such as verbal and physical greetings, sharing materials, using children’s names, making eye contact, and smiling in a friendly way. With support and gentle encouragement, you can help children transition into the new school year, confident in their existing friendships and ready to make new, lasting ones.