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Encouraging Friendships

Dear Debi,
My 4-year-old daughter only has one friend in the neighborhood. She prefers to play alone or with her only friend. How can I encourage her to make more friends?
Maritza Vazquez
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Model helpfulness, friendliness & concern for others
  • Set up enough space & provide appropriate materials
  • Provide plenty of play time
  • Arrange for children to play together more often
Expert Advice
Su Livingston
Su Livingston
Early Childhood Education Instructor
Itís pretty typical for a four-year-old to have just one friend. Itís similar to how there are kids who like to eat only one kind of food. Even though they may like only one kind of food at the moment, it wonít always be that way. Eventually, theyíll explore other options. A similar thing happens with kids when they start to form friendships.

To make a friend and to be a friend really consists of a lot of important life skills that children are still in the process of choosing. The most obvious reason that children need friends is because it gives them a sense of importance. To have a friend is to have a sense of security and a sense of belonging. Friends are the next step in forming relationships for kids outside of their family.

Childrenís abilities to make friends definitely change as they get older and become less egocentric. Two-year-olds tend to do a lot of parallel play. So for example, they might each be digging their own hole in the sand as they stand next to each other but it doesnít occur to them to make one big hole. As kids get older, they become more cooperative and theyíre noticing more outside of themselves so, they start to show an interest in forming friendships.

If theyíre at an age when friendships should be emerging and they donít have any friends, then there might be a reason to be concerned. If they donít have many friends, but only have one friend Ė thatís perfectly normal.

I would help that child connect with other children and that might mean being there as a play partner and helping to invite other children into the play. Words and language are huge tools of play: how do you enter play, how do you invite others, how do you negotiate play? Thatís where the storytelling can come in. This can be a way to show them how to do these things. At the age of four, kids are still learning how to put their emotions into verbal language. Children also learn communication through tone of voice and facial expressions. If a child needs a little more help, I would use puppets, stories, dramatic play. I would try to figure out if thereís a skill that the child is missing thatís making it more difficult for him to make friends.

Set up your environment in a way that will encourage interaction among a group of kids. For example, set up benches instead of individual chairs; set up easels for two or three kids instead of one; have a large mirror at their level so they can see themselves and each other.

Play materials should be set up in a way that doesnít encourage competition. Itís OK to not have four of everything, and itís OK to wait your turn for a little bit. But you donít want to have only one item thatís going to encourage competition and that all the kids will be fighting over. Look for ways to set up children in partners. If youíre doing an art project, do something like having kids paint their handprints Ė the kids can take turns helping each other make their prints.
Child Care Provider Comments
Nora Urrea
Nora Urrea
Mother of five
If the child is in a preschool environment and she is shy, there are birthdays and the kids get to know each other better. Stronger friendships start to develop from being classmates. If they arenít in a school environment, going to the park and the library will help them meet new kids. The church environment is also good. I always strike up a conversation with parents.
Clarissa August
Clarissa August
Family child care provider for 21 years
If a child is shy and has one friend in the neighborhood, this lets you know that she has the social skills to make friends and it appears that this is her choice to have one friend. Many children prefer what is called parallel play. They are close enough to others to observe and sometimes mimic what they are doing, and eventually allow others in their circle. Just make sure you give her opportunities to develop friendships, trips to the parks, to the library for story time, play dates with some of your friendsí children.
Sari Cuervo
Sari Cuervo
Mother of Two
I will set up play dates for my son to play with his new friend. The parents and I will exchange numbers and make conversation about the kids. Having the children see the parents interacting and feeling a friendship building will give the children confidence. I will let the kids come over to our house and just roam. I pass out snacks so that they can eat together.

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Encouraging Friendships
Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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Helping a Shy Child Make Friends
Social Development
Helping a Child Whoís Being Picked On
Nurturing Early Social Skills
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