Preschoolers are wired to play, but play is hard if they don’t have friends. Parents can help by asking pointed questions and trying not to worry too much.
Cooperative play is an important part of learning. It’s how kids learn to lead, navigate interpersonal relationships, and negotiate their own needs with other individuals. However, without the shared interests that build friendships, cooperative play can be a tough nut for some kids to crack — and playing by oneself in the sandbox is no way to build interpersonal skills. Most parents understand this intrinsically, which amplifies the worry and heartbreak when they realize their preschooler might be a wallflower. But by taking a sociological view of preschool, parents can help a kid get better at making friends — up to a point.
“There’s only so much we can do that’s meddling in our kid’s life. It’s not like we’re messing with a chessboard,” says Dr. Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a Temple University professor, early learning researcher, and advocate for preschool social engineering. Hirsh-Pasek thinks it’s important to acknowledge that preschoolers are malleable creatures with fluid friendships and that, as such, they should be both respected and understood in terms of their actual motivations. “They’ll like the kids that have the toys they like and play the games they want to play,” she points out.
How To Help a Preschooler Make Friends
- Learn the names of the other children in the preschool class by attaining a class list
- Ask the preschooler pointed questions about playing with their peers to figure out what each kid likes
- Make matches and set playdates based on what the preschooler says about their peers
- Know that preschool friendships are dynamic and changeable and try not to worry too much
Helping a preschooler develop more and better friendships is largely about helping them get oriented to the interests of their peers. But parents first need to know who the heck those peers are, explains Hirsh-Pasek. “The first things parents can do, believe it or not, is to get to know the other kids in the class,” she explains. “If you know the names of the other kids in the class, then at the end of the day, you can talk to your kid by asking specific questions to get a sense of the school day.”
Hirsh-Pasek recommends starting with a class list and simply asking pointed questions: “Did you paint with Johnny today? Did you have a snack with Jill? Did you play with Lucy in the playground?” These questions prompt a preschooler to give more than the typical how-was-your-day-shrug. Inevitably parents will glean insights and receive corrections from their kid: “Jill doesn’t like raisins. I played with Greg, not Lucy. Johnny likes to paint monsters.” This information, then, becomes the basis for preschool friendship building.
“It’ll only take about two weeks to have a full sociological map of that classroom,” Hirsh-Pasek says. “You can find out who else like to do puzzles, and then have a playdate or invite the kid over or go out for ice cream.”
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Of course, this is assuming parents have given the kid the necessary skills to avoid becoming a preschool pariah in the first place. Those skills? Sharing, self-control, and empathy.
But those aren’t the only skills a parent needs to be teaching their child, according to Hirsh-Pasek. The kid should be learning just as much about their peers as their parent is. “Make sure they know the kids in their class and can tell you one thing another kid likes,” she says. “The more they get to know the other kids, the more you’re helping them get to know what they can do and talk about with these other kids.”
But sometimes all of this will do little to staunch the parental sting of a kid who appears to be a loner. In order to help that anxiety parents may want to speak with their kid’s preschool teacher to figure out if there is an issue that needs to be addressed by a professional. It’s possible a child psychologist may need to be called in, but the chances are slim. More likely, a parent should work on managing their own expectations for their child.
“The important thing is to help your child have the tools he or she needs,” Hirsh-Pasek says. “And try not to take too much of this too seriously. Because tomorrow the chances are really high it’s going to turn around and change yet again.”