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“You’re not my friend!” are 4 words that can break the heart of a typical 4 year old child. How often has your preschool aged child come home crying because “no one” wants to be their friend? How often have they complained about another child “hitting or beating” them? These are some of the many social pressures a kindergartner can face. Which is why I believe social development should be an integral part of every preschool or nursery’s curriculum.

I’m sure you’ve heard of horror cases, where a child had been locked in a room for most of their lives, and once released they exemplify an extreme lack of social awareness. These children can be aggressive or completely withdrawn from societal norms. This is how child psychologists have recognized that social skills are “learned”, we are not born with them. It has been debated for quite some time in the intellectual circles of whether humans are naturally self-centered. Whichever position you can take, one must note that when a newborn arrives in this world, their only concern is having its basic needs met; such as eating, drinking, love, and shelter. The only form of communication the baby is born with is crying. They cry when they’re hungry, sick, or just want to be held. As nurturers, we try to provide them with these needs. At some point the child develops another form of communication; speech. This marks the beginning of a new form of expression. They can now verbally express their needs. Although able to communicate with others, their needs are still self-centered.

Normally in a child care setting you would find a 1 year old child playing alone, even if others are around them. This form of play is identified as “solitary play” in Mildred Parton’s “Stages of Play Theory”. If another child has a toy that this particular child wants, they would typically take it away from the other’s hands without asking. They have yet to learn the social skills of sharing, taking turns, cooperating, and distinguishing between what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior. This is where the teacher or provider should intervene.

There are a lot of social activities and songs that can teach children about model behavior. In our preschool, we have often used Barney songs; such as “Please and Thank You, The Magic Words” with the teacher modeling the correct behavior of showing the kids how to ask for what they want, using the word please, and responding with thank you after receiving it. They have to be taught that they can’t simply take whatever they want whenever they want it. By the same token, the child who originally has the toy, has to learn how to “share”. For instance, the teacher could say to the child, “Lisa you play with it for 5 minutes, then you can allow another child to play with it, that way everyone gets a turn to play with the same toy” in a nice approving voice to model the behavior you are trying to teach. This way, the children are not only learning to share, they are also learning patience, and taking turns, all model social behavior.

Without these basic skills, some children do not become the “ideal” playmates by the time they reach the age where children play socially, which is typically around 3 to 4 years of age. Often times when a teacher is more engaged in children's social play, he or she may discover why a certain child is not making friends too easily. The child could be too aggressive for the others and in some instances too shy to assert themselves. The teacher or parents can intervene by asking the other children why they won’t play with the child. If its because the child hits, bites, or any other form of aggressive behavior, you must teach them the behavior that is acceptable to interact with others. If the child is shy, you must teach them to be more assertive, and help to build their social confidence. You can also match a bashful child with an assertive one, to help them gain social experiences. Always be aware of how children are interacting when they are playing. If one looks sad and lonely, try to encourage others to play with this child. Even as a teacher you can engage in play with them by giving a bit more attention to this particular child. Also be on the watch for the “bullies” and teach them model behavior as well. After many years of counseling children, I’ve also discovered that even the so-called bullies are in need of love and encouragement in school, as it may be missing in their homes. Always talk to the children, to see what’s going on in their little heads and teach them how to express themselves. Use as much positive reinforcement as possible, and when the behavior is completely unacceptable, use the age appropriate (loving, not harsh) punishment to try to decrease poor behavior.

I also encourage parents that have recently moved to a new city to try to meet other parents in the school and make “play dates” for the children. Some children will play with just about anyone, while others will develop bonds with a select few. Either way teach the children appropriate social behavior, or monitor their play activity without being too overly protective. They have to learn to eventually play independently of adult intervention.


- Written by Lahoma Williams, an Independent Educational Specialist,

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