How ECE Children Develop Friendships

According to researchers from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child at Harvard University, who have studied how young children develop in an environment of relationships, beyond just spending time with other children, it is crucial for young children to develop friendships. The research shows that “children learn and play more competently in the rapport created with friends rather than when they are dealing with the social challenges of interreacting with casual acquaintances.” Of course, children have different personalities, with some being more outgoing and others being quieter, so this is a key area where skilled early education teachers can focus and help support children’s growth. Ms Veronica Martin, Early Child Education (ECE) Coordinator at Yew Chung International School of Shanghai, Pudong (YCIS), shares that teachers and parents are instrumental in guiding children to create these connections. 

Ms Martin says, “Our class teachers get to know every child and they help support them to build relationships with others, which can turn into strong friendships. Like any learning, there are skills that need to be built, and the teachers use many strategies to help the children learn how to work and play together, share ideas, and interests. Especially at the beginning of the school year, teachers will notice which children have similar interests and will encourage them to play together. As children cannot always voice their feelings, our teachers can act as a bridge between children as they start to connect and build relationships that can turn into strong friendships.”

‘Friendship’ in the ECE programme falls under the area of children’s Personal, Social, and Emotional Development (PSED). Friendships start with learning how to relate to another person and building relationship skills, such as how to play alongside another person, the sharing of ideas, and asking each other questions. According to Ms Martin, friendship in every year level is very different as children grow and change their ideas about who they want to play with and the relationship skills they have developed. For example, the two-year-old children in Kindergarten 2 (K2) are just discovering others and their friendships often develop around toys they have a shared interest in at that moment in time. Ms Martin says, “You will see a K2 child get a tissue for another child, or hug a classmate, and this is the start of children recognizing that other people have different emotions than they do, and that they can do something about it.” For three-year-old children (in K3) who are a bit further along in the development of their social relationships, Ms Martin notes that they are “making choices about who they want to play with and talk to, discovering others who have similar interests, and their games often involve another person.” 


At the top of the Kindergarten development scale are four-year-olds, or K4s, who are “really interesting” says Ms Martin, “They understand more about relationships, emotional growth, and how to work with others. They are making choices about who to play with, and who not to play with. They are also discovering that their words can have power.” At this point, Ms Martin explains that as they help children learn about social rules the teachers will encourage children to say things like “I will play with you later,” rather than a “No, you can’t play.” While the development of friendship varies as children grow, true friendships are not formed until around the age of six or seven, says Ms Martin, when children are fully able to develop empathy, whereas before that age they are simply working on relationships and how to get along and work with others.

Parents can help support at home, as well. It is important to give children the ability to talk about their feelings and emotions as much as possible. Since friendship is all about emotion and learning how to recognise feelings, parents can talk with their child about how he / she feels, asking their child why they wanted to play with someone or why they didn’t. When working on any friendship or relationship things can invariably go wrong, and this is also something parents can discuss with their child. Ms Martin shares that, “A child may come home and say that their friend did not want to play with them that day, and as a parent, while this can tug at the heartstrings, it is actually an important experience we need to help children understand. In this case, parents can ask the child about the situation: ‘Why did the friend not want to play?’, ‘What did you do when this happened?’, or ‘What could you do next time to help your friend want to play?’ Friendships are very fluid for young children, and this is not a sign that something is wrong, but it’s simply an indicator that your child is growing and making different choices, which should be supported. If parents encourage their child to talk to them early on about the relationships/friendships they have, this will become a habit and later as teenagers, they will do the same thing.”

There are tremendous, lasting benefits of learning how to build relationships with others from a very early age. Friendships can start in the earliest years of ECE and stay true for many years. Children are social beings, so having a friend, or many, will help with their sense of belonging and self-esteem, and by gaining an understanding of how they affect others through their actions, children can also learn to be a kind friend to others, which will serve them well as they move into their Primary years, and beyond. 

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