Friendship is often taken for granted as an aspect of life which ‘just happens’. Think of your first, real friendship. You can probably remember the feeling and emotion which hit if that friendship broke down. The subsequent feeling when it got back on track is also something which sticks. Though often just seen as a given, friendship is a vital part of growing up, and aids childhood development. That’s why we should be helping children by nurturing toddler friendships.
Here at Hand Made Places we’re celebrating the importance of friendships in childhood. We’re also sharing our ideas for helping children make friends at school and on the playground.
Stages of Development & Children’s Friendships in School Settings
- Physical attributes.
- Emotional identity.
- Social factors.
- Loyalty and tenacity.
Children younger than seven often make friends simply based on attributes such as their age, gender or geographical location. However, even from this young age children will begin to develop a basic understanding of emotions. This can be quite simple. For example, they may begin to choose their ‘playmates’ based on whether they like them, or whether they’re nice or mean!
As children then progress into the later years of primary school they will develop both socially and emotionally. This is where ‘real’ friendships should begin to form. This means that children will pick their friends now based on social factors rather than physical factors; they’ll look for a friend based on shared likes and dislikes, as well as other factors such as similar ability.
At this age, as they develop emotionally, children will gather an understanding of how someone makes them feel. It’s about a specific person making you feel happy or sad, as opposed to the ‘social status’ of having playmates. They will also progress further into conflict resolution; they will now be less likely to ‘stop being friends’ over a simple disagreement.
The Developmental Side of Nurturing Childhood Friendships
The importance of making and breaking friendships in childhood lies in its impact on child development. For example, childhood friendships help to develop:
- Social skills.
- Behavioural stability.
- Longer-term wellbeing.
How does friendship have such a big effect? Let’s take a look at these aspects in more detail.
Learning Social Skills in Childhood
In younger children, we often see squabbling over toys and children talking over one another. This is generally thought to be a result of attempts to assert dominance as they grow.
However, after experience making and breaking friends, we see that children progress in their conversational skills. That’s because children will learn to develop their turn-taking skills, and learn to respect other people’s viewpoints.
Learning these social skills means children can transfer this into adult life. For example, beginning to alter their behaviour based on who they’re with. Children will begin to learn the difference in their language and actions when they’re with an adult versus when they’re with a peer.
Building Behavioural Stability
As well as helping to aid in development of key skills, making friendships as a child can help to promote behavioural stability.
It is suggested that 50% of students who experience behavioural problems actually had difficulty making friends as a young child.
This could be down to having under-developed social skills; this can impact a child’s behaviour if they begin to feel uncomfortable when interacting with peers or elders. This will result in children having difficulty engaging in social situations, thus leading them to “act out” to compensate.
It is therefore beneficial if childhood friendships are there to prevent the development of behavioural problems by stabilising more aspects of children’s lives.
Shaping Their Own Personality and Identity
Not only does the simple act of making friends alter a child’s behaviour; their choice of friends can also help to shape them as a person.
Children will often pick up attributes from other children, which will help to form their personality. In fact, it can be said that the person you are in adulthood is formed by past friendships, and how you interacted with those other people.
It is also said that children who choose to be friends with different genders rather than just one will develop their social skills at a quicker rate than those who simply stick to their ‘own’. This is due to the gendered differences in conversation and development we see in childhood; it may come as a result of the ways we talk to boys versus girls.
This is a strong argument for encouraging children to have a broader group of friends.
Improving Children’s Sense of Wellbeing
All of these benefits of friendship contribute to a much more ‘well-rounded’ young person. That’s because, if a child has a stronger sense of their identity and is also more comfortable with social interaction, they’re likely to be more confident facing the varied challenges with which life presents them! Clearly, this should offer a higher chance at happiness in the long-run.
Furthermore, the experiences offered by friendship will also have a huge impact on self-esteem. Early childhood is a time in which we are highly susceptible to the development of so-called ‘rules’ and ‘beliefs’ around which our world view is formed. For example, if a child struggles to make friends, they may develop an unspoken belief that they are simply unlikeable.
Poor self-esteem can take an awful lot of time and effort to improve in later life. Therefore, the importance of childhood friendships cannot be understated; friendship goes on to impact our long-term sense of safety, wellbeing and core mental health.
Helping Children Make Friends at School and on the Playground
No matter how much parents and teachers try, they cannot make children’s friends for them. However, there are steps that adults can take to improve children’s social skills so they can form stronger friendships. There are two main social skills you can help children develop for making friends:
In addition to actively teaching friendship skills in schools, you can design children’s play areas around these aspects of social development. Aim for a range of specially designed playground equipment which promotes social interaction.
For example, finger mazes encourage turn-taking and cooperation. This can lead to the formation of genuine, emotional bonds.
In addition to outdoor sensory wall panels, schools can also promote social skills through something as simple as playground furniture. For example the playground ‘buddy system’ relies on this concept!
Communication skills don’t come naturally to every child. For some, difficulty with eye contact is a barrier to effective communication, be it conflict resolution or simply talking through a worry. Specially designed playground furniture can help with this too.
For example, this ‘Share Chair’ has seats which face in opposite directions. This means it provides a place for two children to sit side-by-side and talk things through, without the pressure of intense eye contact. This can enable children to broaden their friendship group, improve their social circle and in time, their social skills.
Nurturing Childhood Friendships
Though it is important that children do make friends, it is equally important that they are not forced into friendship groups.
It’s time to start guiding children through the development of specific skills, helping them to develop more fruitful friendships all by themselves.
Why not start by holding events, activities and even specially designed play sessions which will help to develop social skills?
If you’ve found this resource useful, or know someone who would, please share it using the links below and help improve the mental health of the young generation!