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As Maria Montessori famously said, play is a child's work. Through play, kids learn social skills and develop friendships. But for preschoolers, friendships can be fleeting. Many kids are just getting used to being in a group of their peers and having many children to play with. Support your child by understanding the benefits of play and how it helps them develop friendship skills.
Know the stages of play
Researcher Mildred Parten found that kids go through six stages of play. Play begins at birth with what Parten calls "unoccupied play." As kids get older, they begin to get deeper into solitary play. At about age 2, kids start to notice others and watch them play, a stage that's called "onlooker play." A bit later, at about 2 1/2, kids begin to try out what they see others doing through parallel play.
Often, kids are at the parallel play stage when they begin preschool. Some kids have already ventured into the associative play stage, which is the beginning of playing with friends. In this stage, kids can apply what they've learned through onlooker and parallel play to interact with a friend. Once kids have mastered this stage, they are ready for collaborating with groups of their peers through cooperative play.
Teach kids how to enter play
When kids are ready to move beyond parallel play, they are ready to try to join their peers in play. But that can be easier said than done. Often, kids are taught to ask, “Can I play with you?” But young kids can see closed questions such as this as opportunities to say “no.” Instead, teach your child to ask questions such as, “What can I do in this game?” Alternatively, she can watch other kids play and figure out what role might need to be filled. For example, in a game where kids are pretending to be family members, your child could ask to join in the play by saying, "Can I be a baby?"
Address rejection before it happens
Even when they ask good questions, kids will sometimes face rejection. While it is certainly sad to be excluded, it can also be an important learning opportunity. Help kids see friendship as fluid. When young kids say things like, "I don't want to be your friend anymore", this can just mean that they don't want to play right then. Teach your child the language they should use to express that they are done playing a game ("I'd like to play something else now"), and to understand why kids might not always be open to playing.
Role-play at home
Young kids don't have too much patience for talking, but they sure are up for a lot of pretend play! Use this to your advantage by engaging in role-playing games about friends. As your child and you take on different roles, practice entering play, sharing toys, and politely leaving a game.
Check out this article for more ways to help your preschooler make friends.
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