Social interactions in early childhood are vital to children’s development. Some of the ways children develop friendship skills include building connections with each other, using empathy, engaging in risky play and playing learning games together.
When children have a friend, they learn about themselves and others, and there are new possibilities for being and becoming together.1 Establishing friendship requires a variety of skills including noticing and greeting others, finding ways to interact together and to solve conflicts.
The role of teachers and educators in supporting peer relationships in the first three years of life has increased in importance as more children spend time in early childhood settings.
How our understanding of children has changed over time
Our understanding of children and their capacity to notice and bond with other children from a young age has evolved over time. Early views of infants were of solitary beings that were incapable of sharing or forming friendships.2 There was a widespread view that infants engaged in solitary or parallel play and do not communicate with other children.3
However, newer research shows that children are social beings, even as babies. Engdahl’s research in a Swedish preschool showed how one year olds worked in different ways to create friendships – greeting each other, offering play invitations and helping another child.
Engdahl provides an example for how children communicate without words to build friendships:
Robin is playing with trucks. He holds one small and one large truck in his hands. Robin drags both trucks along and walks up to Leo. He stops in front of Leo and looks at him. Leo looks at Robin. Robin gives the small car to Leo and walks away towards the hill, while at the same time looking at Leo. Leo follows Robin with his eyes.
How educators can assist children with building friendships
Paying attention to physical surroundings
Educators can pay attention to the physical structure of a room, and how it supports or inhibits interactions between children.
Questions to ponder include:
- Are children placed together in the same position in highchairs to encourage bonding?
- Do you notice children looking at each other, reaching for and touching each other’s food?
Physical structures can include opportunities for infants and toddlers to move together and use shared equipment such as ladders, large balls and play areas.
Encouraging positive social interactions
Caregivers can engage children in discussions about how to understand the feelings of others, how their behaviours affect others, and can provide help for children to express their own feelings.
Another intervention is ‘igniting peer interaction’, to encourage children to approach peers as well as educators. Example: When a toddler approaches an educator excited at his success with a painting, she can share his excitement and at the same time model how to approach a peer and show him the painting.
More general strategies to support children include responding sensitively and listening, mirroring and being emotionally available, in order to support toddlers to generalise such sociability and modelling in their interactions with peers.
Planning and programming for positive social interaction
Intentional teaching, using strategies like modelling and engaging in shared thinking, can support educators to meet the social needs of children.
Many researchers point to the need to permit conflict, including not always providing enough of a particular object or toy for each child, in order to allow peer relationships to unfold. Placing objects near children can create conflict situations that enable children to extend their social skills.
Approaches to conflict are important—educators should allow children try and solve their conflict themselves unless someone is getting physically hurt. Adults can help to support children to express their feelings, for example by asking children how a conflict can be resolved, helping children to use their language to express emotions, and supporting them to understand emotions in others.
Ways to focus on friendships
Educators observe and reflect on children’s development regularly. As part of this, you can reflect upon the following areas to put a focus on friendships:
- Where children are at in their social and emotional development and what are their strengths.
- How their relationships are building and with which children, then plan activities that will enable children to work close to, or with, friends.
- Supporting children to understand social situations and developing their confidence to respond to conflict.
2 Parten, 1932, Piaget, 1962
3 Degotardi Davis https://doi.org/10.1177/1476718X14538600
4 Ingrid Engdahl (2012) Doing friendship during the second year of life in a Swedish preschool, European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 20:1, 83-98, DOI: 10.1080/1350293X.2012.650013
5 Ashby, Nicole ; Neilsen-Hewett, Cathrine, Approaches to conflict and conflict resolution in toddler relationships, Journal of Early Childhood Research, June 2012, Vol.10(2), pp.145-161