Fostering Friendship Skills in Early Childhood (Part 1): Learning to Wait, Take Turns and Share

Learning how to be a good friend is arguably one of the most important and helpful skills we need for success and happiness in life. Around the age of 3 to 4 years, children are typically ready to begin the art of playing collaboratively with their peers and truly “making friends.” Making friends and learning to play well with other children nurtures a sense of belonging and self-esteem that frequently translates to a love of self and school. While the desire to have friends and to be with others is quite instinctive, the skills children need to interact with peers successfully are complex and must be learned, practiced and fine-tuned.

Learning to be a good friend encompasses a wide range of skills, including: learning appropriate ways to initiate, join and maintain play, sharing space, taking turns, listening to and negotiating with others, solving conflicts. These are the roots of the social skills we continue to use throughout life.

Below are some ideas for concrete ways you can help your child learn and practice important skills that are central to social success. The ideas we outline are from a wonderful book for preschool teachers called, “Beyond Behavior Management: The Six Life Skills Children Need” by Jenna Bilmes. In this article, we will describe strategies for helping children learn and practice waiting, turn taking and sharing. In future articles in this series, we will address teaching kids about using assertive communication, practicing conflict resolution and further developing collaborative play skills.

Waiting, Turn Taking and Sharing Skills

  1. Using timers is one useful way to help children to understand concretely the concept of turn-taking and time passing. Timers serve as a visual cue and help adults to stay out of the middle of mediating turn taking disputes, allowing children a chance to work things out themselves. Many parents use timers successfully at home to help children complete tasks, such as brushing teeth, or getting ready for bed on time. Using timers in turn-taking social situations, like sharing a favorite toy or using a special piece of play equipment, helps children understand and accept that everyone needs to have a turn, as well as helping them to be patient and to give their friends space to play.
  2. Another useful visual prompt for turn taking is the Talking Stick. (Almost anything you can hold in your hand can work for this purpose.) How often during a play date with multiple children or at the dinner table in multi-child families, is their upset about children struggling to wait to share their ideas or to tell their story. Language is a dance of turns, and children learn these gradually through their early years. A talking stick is something that adults can use to visually cue children that it is their turn to speak. In can help in several ways. Children at this point in development are, at times, so excited to share that they have difficulty waiting and also reading social cues about whether it is an appropriate time to share. The talking stick gives children a definite turn represented by something tangible in their hands. It also lets others know that that it is their turn to listen to what is being said. Children at this age may also become anxious about speaking, or have difficulty organizing their thoughts, therefore the talking stick allows them to relax in between turns and actively participate more in listening to others. While this tool may seem simple, it gives young children explicit practice as to the rhythm of turn taking in verbal communication.
  3. Teaching social scripts: Turn taking scripts are the everyday language of social interaction. Just as every culture has certain small exchanges that we all learn from a young age to make basic interactions simple between two strangers, such as, “Hi, how are you?” answered by, “Fine, and you?” These social scripts can be taught for the moments that children find difficult, such as when they want to play alone or don’t want to share. Common phrases such as “I want to play alone right now,” or, “You can look at my toy but I’m using it now” are easy ways to avoid confusion, frustration and upset.
  4. Passing out community supplies: Children can learn to share coveted resources e.g., cool art supplies, snacks and the like when they are given the important job of passing out the important materials before group activities. When they receive praise and encouragement for a job well done, the value of sharing is reinforced and over time internalized. This works well at school, but can also happen during playdates when it can be even harder for children to share their own special supplies, toys or snacks in their home.
  5. “My turn your turn” activities: Adults can create my turn, your turn games in the in-between times of the day out of virtually any activity, as children instinctively love these games. Whether building blocks, tapping on the table, making faces, children love to take turns with a cherished adult. Next, encourage two children to play together with your supervision.
  6. “My space your space” activities: Children can benefit from concrete visual representations of their spaces to sit and work, maybe through a colored square of construction paper to sit on, or a cookie sheet for art projects. Social scripts can also be very useful here as children may need to learn to say, “Please move over, you’re too close to me,” or, “Please don’t take that, I’m using it.”
  7. Pretend to wait play scenarios: Practicing waiting and taking turns in imaginative pretend play scenarios is a wonderful way to bring these concepts to life and even make waiting a fun activity. By organizing a pretend doctor’s office with a waiting room, a line at the grocery store, or setting up tables like at a restaurant, adults can encourage children to practice waiting and turn taking in a playful environment. In these settings, children can take turns being in charge of the line, and being someone who is in the line waiting. For example, the hostess at a restaurant might have guests wait until a table is ready, then seat the guests, who again have to wait to make their orders and wait for their food. Patients in the doctor’s office are greeted by an office assistant who asks them to wait to be called, and then might wait again for the doctor. Children can change roles, and talk about which characters they enjoyed being, and which were difficult to play.
  8. During play, adults can model self-talk around waiting: When adults join children’s play, they can model waiting and turn taking skills, especially the self-talk that helps them to be patient and endure the wait. In the grocery store scenario, the adult could say, “Well, I see there is a line ahead of me, I guess I will have to wait to buy my groceries today. It seems very long, but I think that it will move pretty quickly. Oh, it’s getting closer to my turn. Now, I’m next in line!” This modelling of turn taking and waiting self-talk can easily take place in real life too, and by saying these scripts out loud, parents may find that they are in fact a little more patient navigating the busy world around them!