Tips to Help Your Preschool Child Make Friends

Toddlers are very content to sit next to another child and play, each doing their own thing, basically ignoring one another. But as children grow and develop, this “parallel play” transforms into a need for social interaction. By the time children reach the age of 4 or 5, the need for friendships and playing with peers becomes very important to children. But for many children, wanting to play with friends does not mean that they know how to make it happen. When the desire is there, but the skills are not, children get frustrated. They may become aggressive as they try to get other children to interact with them. Or you may notice children becoming reclusive as they try to avoid the frustrating situation.

As a parent or caregiver, you can help. Successful play experiences, and eventually friendships, require important social skills like empathy, problem solving, and communicating. Children who have difficulties in any of these areas may have a harder time making friends. Here are some strategies to support a child’s social development and encourage friendships:

  • Bring your child along as you go out in the world and interact with others. Children learn by watching and seeing you successfully interact with people you don’t know very well can help your child to learn some of these skills.
  • Give your child many opportunities to meet and interact with peers. Whether through play dates, group activities like story time, music classes, etc. or frequent visits to a local playground, the more your child is able to meet and interact with peers, the more opportunities he will have to develop and practice emerging social skills.
  • Pay attention to your child as she navigates play opportunities. Watch her verbal and non-verbal interactions. How does she approach peers? Does he play cooperatively? Is he able to communicate with playmates? Is there a pattern to when and how problems arise? Once you have a better idea of where or why your child is having troubles playing with others, you can better support him in developing new skills.
  • Model the behaviors that you would like to see in your child. Listen to his thoughts, feelings, ideas and stories. Be kind to others, greet them, give compliments, show empathy. Avoid complaining. Have a sense of humor about your own weaknesses.
  • Help your child to see her strengths and feel good about herself.
  • When arranging play dates, start small. Begin with one friend for one hour and then gradually increase the length of time and number of friends as your child’s skills grow. This will help to avoid frustrating or overstimulating your child.
  • Don’t be afraid to guide your child through activities as he learns about social and behavior expectations. You don’t need to be a “helicopter parent” but instead support your child as needed to encourage success.

Friendships are  important to young children and learning how to start and maintain friendships is an important life skill. Like everything else, children are not born with these skills and some will need more guidance than others as they navigate the world of friendships.

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Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part IV

It has now been a year since the professionally installed playground became open to the children at this child care center. It has changed very little since it was first installed. An outdoor water fountain was removed. One teacher told me it was a hazard, the way it stuck out in the middle of an area that got a lot of kid traffic. Another said it was removed because a pipe burst (New Hampshire winters do that to pipes!). Other small changes include, more rungs added to a steep wooden ramp heading up a small hill, and flat rocks embedded into a high-traffic section of another hill where the grass was quickly warn away.

The teachers and children are as enthusiastic about their natural playground today as they were a year ago. One preschool teacher described it as “a nice, peaceful place to be.” I have visited a lot of school playgrounds, and I haven’t heard many teachers describe the playground experience in that way! Here are some of the reasons these teachers love their playground:

Fewer child conflicts- it is easier to redirect children and children are more likely to walk away and find a space of their own in the varied terrain of this playground

More outdoor time- because it is so easy to link the curriculum to the playground (reenacting stories, science exploration, math activities with natural materials) teachers take the children outdoors more often. One teacher said, “we used to go for walks to find things in nature, now we don’t even have to leave the playground.”

Children use their imaginations more- the uneven, exciting terrain of the playground with its caves, hills, tunnels, dips, rocks, ridges, and trees encourage all kinds of imaginative and cooperative play with children.

While the teachers didn’t mention this, I can’t help but think that this playground has also enhanced their teaching. Research shows that when children can get out and experience math and science concepts, or act out stories, they are learning content in a variety of ways, learning it faster and learning it better.

More of the Natural Playground series:

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part I

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part II

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part III

Exploring a New Age for Playgrounds

Anyone who has given a child a gift and has experienced the box being more interesting than the toy knows what fertile ground a child’s mind can be with the blank slate of a very plain object. A box can be a house, a bed, a hat, a parking garage… the possibilities are endless! This is the thinking behind the concept of “loose parts”. Loose parts are any loose, movable objects that children can use in many different ways during imaginative play.

Natural playground advocates see all of the sticks, rocks, sand, leaves and other natural items available on a natural playground as wonderful loose parts. And they are right! But can loose parts be made available in a traditional playground, which are often stripped of trees, rocks and any other items which might cause injury?

One playground designer I spoke with lamented the fact that most of the schools and town rec departments he deals with don’t want to have anything to do with any “playground equipment” that can’t be bolted down. Teachers don’t want to have to deal with lugging materials out and then storing them away again, and administrators don’t want to spend money on materials that they feel will quickly disappear. Understandable, but disappointing…

Now it looks like there is a new concept in playground equipment that is completely structured around the concept of loose parts.

Imagination Playground's Loose Parts

A recent article in the New Yorker Magazine entitle “The State of Play” turned me on to Imagination Playground and the work they are doing in bringing the concept of loose parts to playgrounds all over the country. These gigantic blue foam blocks and tubes can be used in any playground or open space, even in water! They are the keystone feature in many new playgrounds, but can also be purchased as a “kit” to add to your local playground. Loose parts that are very unlikely to walk away! Check out their website for more information about their mission and all kinds of photos and videos.

Social Skills Bloom in the Natural Playground

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to observe a group of toddlers using the professionally installed natural playground. Normally, watching a group of toddlers playing outdoors is like watching TV at a big box electronic store. Each TV is set to its own channel, doing its own thing. There may be three toddlers in the sandbox, but they are each digging, dumping or piling, as if they had no idea the others were there.

On the natural playground, it was a completely different story. Here I found one toddler encouraging another to crawl up the big hill. The encouragement became more physical and animated the closer the climbing child got to the top.

One toddler encourages another to climb to the top

Friends celebrate success!

Not only were children encouraging one another to try new things. They were exploring together too! A brief conversation with the toddler teachers made it clear that they too are finding outdoor time with their children to be much more enjoyable. Children are discovering positive ways to challenge themselves and practicing these new skills over and over again. As a result, there are fewer incidents of children intentionally hurting one another or quarreling over toys.

Exploring is even more fun with a friend!

To see previous entries on the natural playground series, click here:

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part III

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part II

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Develop