Social interaction, bonding with peers, and establishing and maintaining friendships are important developmental milestones that offer children many benefits. Not only do friends have the power to boost happiness, reduce stress, and help children cope with life's difficulties, but they can encourage learning and help children develop confidence.
Encouraging children to develop and maintain friendships in the early years is an important role for educators, and this week we look at the reasons why.
An early introduction to society
Early childhood (ECE) settings are often the first extended experiences a child has outside the home environment away from parents and carers. Early childhood services are where children learn to deal with change, interact with both peers and non-family members, and develop new skills. By sitting together to eat meals, participating in group activities and learning to follow instructions from educators, children learn what society has in store for them and how to co-exist with other people.
Understandably this is a lot for young children to absorb and this is where friendships can help to ease the transition and improve the likelihood of children making a smooth transition.
According to Olivia Liva, Director of an early childhood centre in Sydney the starting point for friendships within ECE environments lies with the educators.
"Feeling like you belong is a really natural part of human existence. In an early learning setting, a secure relationship between an educator and a child helps that child to feel like they belong and also helps to create a working model for positive relationships," she told Kidspot, as part of an initiative with the NSW Department of Education.
The benefits of friendships in the early years
While it's nice when children have little playmates, these first friendships are more important than most realise and shouldn't be taken for granted.
"Research is now telling us that children's early relationships actually help to shape the way their brain is built, so these first friendships and child-teacher relationships really are foundational to those they have with others across their lifetime," said Ms Liva.
In addition to helping children navigate their way through an exciting yet challenging new world of peers, rules and endless new activities, friendships have many other benefits for young children.
"Children can feel safe as they explore the social world and practice things like being respectful, social justice and problem-solving in a group," added Ms Livia.
Other interesting benefits of early childhood friends include the following:
- It's a chance to step outside the sibling comfort zone
While having siblings is beneficial on many levels, entering the world of interactive peer relationships is another dynamic that requires new thoughts and feelings. For example: siblings should, but don't always, show respect and kindness to one another – something which is expected a lot more between friends and peers.
- Children get to experience diversity
Early learning settings incorporate children from many different cultures and backgrounds. They might speak another language, look differently or be differently abled, plus everyone has different interests, tastes and talents. Seeing what different attributes and likes or dislikes their friends have can open a child’s mind up to new ideas plus understanding and acceptance of others.
- Friendships decrease stress and enhance mental and physical health
Recent research shows people who feel lonely or socially isolated tend to be depressed, have poor health and may have a shorter lifespan. On the contrary, having a great social support system can help people deal with life's hardships.
According to Paul Schwartz, a professor of psychology and child behaviour expert, the health benefits of having friends start when you're a child.
"Friendships contribute significantly to the development of social skills, such as being sensitive to another's viewpoints, learning the rules of conversation, and age-appropriate behaviours," he said in the Hudson Valley Parent.
"More than half the children referred for emotional behavioural problems have no friends or find difficulty interacting with peers. "
- Increased performance and development
"Friends also have a powerful influence on a child's positive and negative school performance and may also help to encourage or discourage deviant behaviours," says Schwartz. "Compared to children who lack friends, children with 'good' friends have higher self-esteem, act more socially, can cope with life stresses and transitions, and are also less victimised by peers."
Some early education facilities even deliberately place children in classes with their friends to help children maintain bonds.
"I do not believe that children can learn if they do not feel comfortable and valued in the classroom," says Amy Symonds, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Powell Elementary School in Washington.
"Having strong relationships with their peers is one of the many factors that helps students feel welcome…my main goal for students is to nurture their social-emotional development. I do think it is important for students to learn to work with all of their peers, but it is also important to help strengthen friendships."
Ideas for helping kids develop positive friendships
There are many ways educators can help children to connect with one another to form friendships. Here are a few ideas:
- Model good friendships skills – Point out friendly behaviours such as greeting others, sharing, turn taking, listening and respecting each other, and help those lacking in friendship skills to develop them. For example, to those who have trouble expressing their feelings you could share your own, for example, "That was so nice of you to share the doll with me."
- Practice role-play – Use toys to demonstrate how good friends behave with one another. Engaging the children to take part might help them overcome shyness and practice making friends before attempting it for real.
- Create a safe environment – Lisa Palethorpe from Goodstart says that for any connection to form with another child or person, the child first must feel safe. Create a warm and welcoming setting where they can feel safe and connect with the parents so they can establish trust with both educators and peers.
- Facilitate connections – Look at what's going on and find ways to connect children to one another, for example "Henry I can see that Katie is interested in this story, shall we start from the beginning again so she can read with us too?"
- Nurture children in small groups – Not only can it help build a sense of community, but it doesn't overwhelm them with too many faces and too much noise.
- Take notice of friendships – If you see children have bonded nurture this by letting them know when their friend has arrived, putting them together in group activities and advising parents in case they want to arrange playdates outside of child care.