Toddlers making friends: what to expect
When children are very young – aged 1-2 years – they generally play with the other children around them, rather than choosing a ‘best’ friend. Many of your child’s playmates will be the children of people you know – for example, friends, family or parents you meet at playgroup.
Toddlers vary in their sociability – just like parents do. Some are naturally more sociable and can manage more playmates, whereas others are more comfortable with fewer playmates.
As your child gets older and develops verbal skills, she’s likely to start telling you who she likes playing with.
By three years, many children are regularly involved in activities with their peers – for example, at child care, kinder or playgroup. At this age, your child might have a clear idea about who his friends are. He might seek them out and play just with them. At this age, he might call any playmate ‘my friend’ – but he might also just as easily say that the same child is ‘not my friend’ at another time.
By four years, most children will be able to distinguish between ‘my friend’ and other children they know.
Preparing your child for toddler friendships
Children need lots of practice over time to learn to share, take turns and solve conflicts. You can help prepare your toddler for making friends by spending time playing together. You can show her how to be a good friend and play well with others.
For example, you could help your child learn to take turns by playing with him and practising turn-taking as you play. Try taking turns to add blocks to a tower or to kick a ball, and prompt your child by saying ‘My turn’ and ‘Your turn’.
You can model sharing too. For example, if you’re playing with playdough you might give your child a piece of your playdough and say, ‘Let’s share my playdough – some for you and some for me’. When your child has played with you like this for a while, you could ask her to share some of her playdough. When she does, say something like ‘Nice sharing’, or ‘Thank you for sharing with me’.
You can also use toys such as teddies or dolls. Use the teddies to ask for turns, share toys and look after their teddy friends. Your child will watch this fun game and copy what he sees – sometimes, at least! When your child takes turns or shares something, give him lots of praise
Helping toddler playdates go smoothly
Play is young children’s work. It’s how they learn, and it can be very tiring for them. But the more your child plays with other children, the more likely she is to learn to play well.
You can help playdates go smoothly by setting things up for your child and his playmates. Here are some tips:
Keep playdates relatively short – say, 45 minutes to an hour. This means you can finish the playdate while it’s going well, rather than waiting until one or both children get tired, cranky and teary. Your child will remember the playdate as something good and will want to do it again.
- Sit with children for a while when they start playing to help them to get going. Wait until they’ve found their rhythm and are playing happily together before you leave them to play.
- Stay within eyesight so you can see and hear what’s going on. Being able to see you will also help your child feel safe and comfortable in this new situation.
- Set up games where toddlers can play side by side but don’t necessarily have to take turns. At this age, they’re learning to share and it will take time. Turn-taking games can often end in tears, but toddlers usually go well with sandpit play, painting, building with blocks, throwing balls, or playing with dolls and cars.
- Ask your child if there are any toys she wants to put away before friends come over. Or you can put away your child’s favourite toys yourself and help your child choose some toys and games she’s happy to share.
Keep an eye on what’s happening. You can step in if play is getting too rough, or your child isn’t sharing. You could try different ideas to move the play along if you need to. If frustrations are brewing, you could distract the children by stepping in and saying something like ‘Let’s play with these trucks. James, you can have the blue one. Sam, you have the red one’. Then step out to let them go on with playing.
- Try to have lots of toys for the children to play with so they’re not competing for one favourite thing.
- You don’t need expensive toys or highly structured activities for children to have fun with their friends. The more relaxed they are, the easier it is for them to enjoy being with a friend.
Some children with disability can have additional challenges when making friends. A child behaviour professional might be able to give you some strategies and support to develop your child’s skills. You can read more about play and friendship for children with disability
When things go wrong on toddler playdates
Young children can get very frustrated quickly and often don’t have the words to express how they feel. This can lead to them being aggressive towards a friend when things aren’t going their way.
It helps if you’re close by and watching how things are going. If your child is aggressive, a firm ‘Stop’ with a short description of what you want your child to do will help him learn that being aggressive isn’t the right way to play. For example, ‘Stop! Hitting hurts. We don’t hit people. Spades are for digging’.
Very young children might not understand that another child who’s playing with their toys isn’t going to take them home. It can help if you reassure your child that the toys are still hers and will stay at home with her.
If your child has a lot of trouble playing with other children, or his play is very different from the way other children play, it might be helpful to talk to your child and family health nurse, GP or paediatrician.
Other parents can be a great source of ideas about helping toddlers with making friends and setting up toddler playdates. You can share your play ideas in our forum for parents of toddlers