Just like anything else that is important, friendships must be nurtured. This means teaching children specific social skills and giving them the opportunity to practice these skills.
Before an interaction can take place, someone must start it. Learning to greet others with a hello, a wave, or a smile is a skill that children will use throughout their lives in many different situations. For children who have difficulty moving or speaking, you may want to help your child’s peers recognize interests they share with your child. You also may suggest specific ways they may talk or play together. Many parents have noticed that when their children are dressed and groomed in a popular and attractive way, there is a better chance that peers will respond positively.
Find out who your child plays with while in childcare or at school. Ask a teacher, caregiver, or another reliable person with children who shows a special interest in your child. Use this information to identify which children and parents you may want to approach for play dates or buddy arrangements.
Invite a peer over for a play date after school or on the weekend. Limiting the play date to two or three children means that there will be fewer distractions and more opportunities for interaction among the children. It is helpful to prepare the toys and activities beforehand to ensure the experience is a positive one. Play dates can last one to two hours – short enough so each child wants to have another play date soon!
Select toys children can use together, such as balls, blocks or other construction objects, and board games. It is also a good idea to have available toys that children can use to play alongside each other, such as crayons, musical instruments, or books. Sometimes it helps to have two of the same toys so that children can play together without having to take turns.
Set up a play area that will encourage friendships. If you have the space, you may want to arrange the space to allow for children to play in quiet, calm ways as well as active and noisy ways. The play area should be free of clutter and other distractions. Different kinds of toys and materials should be ready for the children to explore and share.
Organize a specific activity such as cooking (cookies are typically a big hit!) or an art project to encourage positive shared experiences. Other options include trips to the museum, library, park, local concerts, high school plays, popular restaurants or ice cream shops.
Helping Children Learn to Play Together
Children are more likely to use positive social skills, if they see these behaviors being used. Parents and caregivers should model social behavior, such as taking turns, listening, sharing ideas, compromising, or showing empathy. Be sure to point out positive social behaviors to your child when or after they occur in natural settings. You can also read and talk to your child using storybooks that are about friendships.
Social skills should be learned and practiced. For example, at the playground, you might teach your child to identify peers who are already playing together and encourage her to make casual contact and join in ongoing activities. You can also practice other social skills at home as you play with your child. For example, you might take turns in a simple card game, or practice trading (“If I give you this book, can you give me that toy?”).
Praise your child when he plays with other children. For example, smile at her when she offers a toy to another child or tell him how wonderful it was to see him take turns with the shovel in the sandbox. On the other hand, you should be ready to help your child when he is having difficulty communicating or interacting with other children. Keep an eye out for times when you may need to change an activity or help your child resolve a misunderstanding. Stay nearby, but not too close – you want to let your child know you have confidence in her!