Fostering Friendship Skills in Early Childhood (Part 3): Collaborative Play

This is the final installment in a series of three articles on helping children learn the central life skill of making and keeping friends. In previous articles, we discussed what a foundational period early childhood is for learning many complicated skills that are necessary for social success. During this critical period, preschoolers begin the life long journey of acquiring and honing important social abilities: to regulate their own emotions and behaviors; to navigate social routines and follow rules of play; to share their resources; to express their needs and listen respectfully to the wishes of others; and of course how to resolve differences collaboratively and constructively. Now comes the fun part of friendship: the fine art of play.

Most of us have spent some time observing children play at recess or free play time and marveled at the intricate social structure that buzzes around, children moving from place to place in an elaborate, unspoken pattern. It is amazing to watch. Maybe in your observations you’ve also seen children who cannot weave themselves in so seamlessly. Depending on their temperament, some children seem to crash in, leaving a trail of startled or annoyed peers (and occasional accidental bumps and bruises) in their wake. Others may hover on the sideline without ever joining the group despite having a reasonable opportunity to warm up to the situation.

What kind of player is your child?

As a parent or caregiver who wants to support a child in learning to play collaboratively with others, a good place to start is by observing your child’s play from a perspective of curiosity. What do you notice? When does your child seem to be most comfortable and successful? Does he prefer to play alone, with one other child, or in a small group? Is she naturally more active or sedentary? What themes and roles does he most enjoy and what toys and props are his favorites? Have you observed your child having specific challenges with collaborative play frequently in the past?

Setting the stage for successful play:

Setting your child up for success is a great next step. Look for play opportunities that play to your child’s interests, strengths and comfort zone at least in the beginning. Pick a length of time that is not too long and not too short when kids have full bellies, are well rested are feeling healthy. Invite one other child or a small number and have play materials available that are likely to be in line with the children’s interests.

Having a conversation with your child in advance about what she thinks she would like to play can help your child feel confident about play ideas to initiate. Supporting your child in imagining what he thinks a friend will want to play when he arrives helps build perspective taking and empathy along with appropriate expectations that play will be collaboratively determined between children, not directed by one child alone.

Naming and empathizing with how you imagine your child might feel if she and her friend want to play two different things is an emotionally supportive technique that helps children manage their difficult emotions better in the moment. For example, a parent might say, “I wonder how you will feel if Suzie wants to play doll house and you want to play jump rope.” Some children can name that they would feel frustrated or mad, leading us to the next step of empathizing (“I see, it does feel frustrating when you and your friend want to play two different things.)

A helpful step after this is to problem solve with your child both about what they can do with the difficult feelings as well as how to solve the problem with their friend. (“I wonder what you can do with those angry feelings if that happens. Maybe you could take a deep breath or ask for help. How do you think we could solve that problem if that happens? Maybe we could take turns and even use a timer if we needed to help it feel fair.”) These types of rehearsals support your child emotionally, build emotion regulation and social skills, and prime the pump for these tools to be more readily accessible during his upcoming playdate.

Modeling and teaching social scripts:

Teaching children to join and to exit play are two very important aspects of social communication that adults and caregivers can support. For children, joining play can be quite daunting, or else too careless which causes other problems.

Just as children thrive on predictable daily routines around getting ready for school and bed, routines (in the form of a few useful social scripts) for how to join and exit play can make collaborative play with other children go more smoothly. A very useful script to help children with joining play, is very simply, “HOW can I play?” As compared to the more typical, “Can I play?” The former question makes it less likely the child is rejected and invites the other children to think of a role for the child. Adults supervising the play can also support the whole group of children to elaborate on their play with thinking of additional roles, e.g., “Oh, I wonder if Suzie could be the block getter”, or “another guard over by the river.”

Caregivers can join with their child who may be more passive or anxious to look for roles together, modeling ways for entering ongoing play. For example, a parent might narrate aloud what they think is going on in the play of a group of children, and how they are figuring it out, such as “Well, I am looking at this building, and I see animals inside, so I think it is a zoo. And Jenny and Alex are bringing some food over, maybe they are feeding the animals. Let’s ask them HOW we can help.”

Less often considered is the importance of learning how to leave or end play positively. Just as it is important to be able to join the group, it is essential to be able to leave and transition to another activity gracefully. Often, preschool children have difficulty leaving an activity, and may behave disruptively because they are uncertain about how to behave. Adults can again model a simple script of putting toys down and saying “Bye,” or “I’m done.” Having this routine can save many arguments and unnecessary upset that can occur at the very end of a lovely play session when “all had been going so well!”

Finally, there is the fine art of gracefully rejecting play requests. Sometimes a child does not want to play with someone else, they want to finish a simple play idea with another child as they started it, or they may even prefer to play alone. In these cases, children need a respectful way to assert their wish not to play with another child. Caregivers can let children know that wanting to play alone, or with a certain friend is alright sometimes, and that it doesn’t mean that someone does not want to be your friend. A useful script in response to a play request in this case might be, “Not now, maybe later”, or “No thanks.”

The importance of young children having opportunities to play with each other in order to learn how to be a friend is very intuitive for most of parents. Less obvious to many is that something as fun as playing comprises many complex skills that children must learn and practice in order to successfully make and keep friends. Taking the time to consider children’s unique personalities and interests, along with analyzing which social skills have yet to develop, creates opportunities for parents to also strategically coach and support children in play if needed so they can be more successful over time and enjoy the wonderful gift of friendship.