How Children Develop Friendships

Two preschool girls playing together on the playground

Children’s friendships reflect not only their age and developmental level, but also their individual temperaments and personalities. Learn about how children develop friendships at each age and stage and find tips on nurturing healthy social-emotional growth.

Children’s friendships reflect not only their age and developmental level, but also their individual temperaments and personalities. Some children are very social and want lots of friends, while others are happier with a few close friends. Both are okay.

As parents, it’s important to separate our own feelings from those of our children. Sometimes parents are more social than their children. When this happens, parents might feel anxious or worry that their children should have more friends. But as long as your child feels good about her friendships, she’s probably just fine.

Learn more about how children develop friendships at each age and stage and find tips on nurturing healthy social-emotional growth.

Friendship Development by Age and Stage

Infants and Toddlers

Infants learn about the world through their senses. They enjoy tactile experiences, like exploring water or sand. They stack toys to watch them fall, pound objects together to make noise, and open cupboard doors to find out what’s inside.

At this age, children don’t have the language or social-emotional skills to engage in complex play with other children, but they are learning about human relationships. Even very young infants can learn caring behaviors, and have been observed responding to another infant’s distress. In group care settings, in particular, infants and toddlers often form bonds, yet, they generally play side-by-side (parallel play), rather than together.

A few tips to help your infant or toddler develop social-emotional skills: 

  • Ensure that interactions, including those with caregivers, are gentle and responsive. When infants’ needs are met quickly, they learn to trust the world, and they want to engage with it.
  • Model basic social skills, such as sharing or saying hello. Don’t expect infants and toddlers to follow suit necessarily, but know that they are learning from your example.

The Preschool Years

As two-year-olds and young preschoolers develop language, play becomes more involved and interactive. Friendships can spring up over shared interests like building ramps together with blocks (cooperative play), or scrambling over a climbing structure.

Try these ideas:

  • Schedule play dates with other parents, but keep them brief—an hour or two is plenty. Have a few play date activities in mind ahead of time, such as playing with play dough or going for a nature walk.
  • Put away any toys that will be difficult for your child to share, or offer duplicates. Remember that sharing is hard at this age; conflicts are common, but generally short-lived. Teach children how to share, but don’t insist on it.
  • Ensure children aren’t hungry or tired.
  • Support play and step in to help solve problems. Give your child clear ideas about what to say and do. For example, “You both want the toy, but Ainsley has it right now. You can wait for a turn or we can find another toy. What would you like to do?”

Late Preschool and Kindergarten

Around the age of four or five, children’s play becomes more complex. They enjoy pretend play (playing house or super heroes), board games, and active games. Some children like rough-and-tumble games. Other children may enjoy doing crafts together. Children are becoming more social at this age, and often prefer to play with other children of the same gender. They might also prefer certain personality types over others.

How to help:

  • This can be the age when cliques and bullying behavior begin to emerge. In a group setting, teach your child to be aware of others who might feel left out, and to be kind and friendly to everyone. Help your child understand that she doesn’t have to be best friends with everyone.
  • Continue to help your child develop social skills. Teach him how to say hello, how to share, and how to take turns. Some children seem to automatically master these skills—others need more direct teaching.
  • Plan some structured activities and invite a few children/families over. Do some crafts, watch a movie, start a book club, or go for a hike. Having other children in your home allows you to see how your child interacts with others, and allows you to offer gentle support when necessary.
  • If you can, make your house “child-friendly.” Keep a supply of snacks on hand, as well as fun, effortless activities at the ready. And be okay with some mess sometimes.

Elementary-Age Children

At this age, children still form friendships around activities and common interests. Active playground games, such as, “hide and go seek,” are nice for breaking the ice because they’re fun, engaging, and non-intimidating. Encourage your child’s social interaction at school, too. Get to know other families and plan get-togethers with them. Team sports and after-school clubs offer other opportunities for your child to make friends.

Some tips:

  • One-on-one play dates generally work better than large groups, especially for more introverted children. Avoid situations with three children unless they’re all very good friends. Otherwise, one child almost inevitably gets left out.
  • Children don’t always intuitively know how to make friendships. Encourage your child to look around at school for other children who might be new, alone, or needing a friend. Tell your child to ask questions to get a conversation going.
  • Continue to make your child’s friends welcome in your home.

Remember, young children develop social-emotional skills over time, and some children are naturally more socially aware than others. Observe your child to understand what she needs and desires in terms of friendships. Keep expectations realistic, and offer gentle, graduated support.

Teach. Play. Love. Ep. 5: Say Yes to Play

On this episode, Rachel Robertson, Bright Horizons education and development vice president, and new mom Amanda, discuss the importance of play to healthy child development. Listen and get ideas for engaging your child in playful ways throughout your day.


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