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When Do Toddlers Make Friends?
August 24, 2023

When Do Toddlers Make Friends?

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When Do Toddlers Make Friends?.
When Do Toddlers Make Friends?

Seeing your toddler make their first little bestie can be exciting (and very cute). But as sweet as it is, most toddlers won’t form actual friendships until closer to four or five years old.

That’s because toddlers are still learning basic social skills like sharing, cooperating and problem-solving. They’re also not great at self-regulation. Most of the time what looks like a group of toddlers playing together is actually them engaging in something called parallel play, which is playing alongside someone else but not really with them.

In the early years of life, the most important relationships for socialization are those with parents and caregivers. “The best way that we can prepare our kids for social skills is by modeling them in our own relationships with [them],” says Holly Peretz, Pediatric Occupational Therapist and founder of OT Holly.

But that’s not to say you can’t set up playdates or take your toddler to spend time in social settings around other children. Exposing them to group settings with other children can help prepare them for what’s ahead.

Here’s everything you need to know about toddlers and making friends.

Toddlers and Social Play

Jean Piaget (a psychologist who is famous for his theory on stages of cognitive development) once said that “play is the work of the child”—it’s how they learn everything from motor skills to social skills.

Toddler play follows a general timeline of evolution, determining how and when they’ll be both cognitively and emotionally ready to form friendships.

Here are the six stages of how children learn to play with others and what you can expect during each.

  • Unoccupied Play: From birth to about three months, babies are content just learning about their bodies and taking in the environment around them.
  • Solitary Play: From birth to two years old, children prefer to entertain themselves and don’t have an interest in playing with other children.
  • Onlooker Play: Around 24 months, toddlers will start to pay attention to what other kids around them are doing but they won’t necessarily play together just yet.
  • Parallel Play: Also starting at two years old, toddlers begin engaging in parallel play. While it may look like they’re playing together, they’re actually doing their own thing in close proximity to each other.
  • Associate Play: Around three to four years old, children will start to look for other children to interact with while playing.
  • Cooperative Play: By four years old, children will be begin engaging in reciprocal (or back-and-forth) play—they’re interested in the activity and the other children involved.

When Do Toddlers Start Making Friends

While younger toddlers may interact with each other, they generally don’t have the ability to form friendships just yet.

“Showing more interest in children than adults in group settings, remembering a friend’s name and choosing to play near another child are the first signs that we look out for between 18 months to two years old,” says Peretz.

Around two years old, toddlers begin to express a lot of territorial “that’s mine!” behavior. They simply don’t understand the concept of sharing because they’re in an egocentric state of cognitive development. This means they’re not able to see another person’s perspective or fully understand another child’s emotions. Our favorite example of this is when playing hide and seek, young toddlers will simply cover their eyes and believe we can’t see them anymore.

Some toddlers are also slow to warm up (aka shy) in social settings, especially if there are a bunch of people they don’t know. You’ll want to let them engage when they’re ready as opposed to pressuring them to go play.

So when can children start forming actual friendships? “​​We know that at around age four and up, kids are developmentally able to play in a way that we typically call ‘playing with a friend’,” says Peretz.

This is around the time they become capable of the social skills necessary to get along with others like turn-taking, empathy and communication. It’s important to remember that since they’re still learning, they’ll likely need your help and support to navigate certain social interactions.

How to Prepare Your Toddler for Making Friends

A toddler’s first experience of socialization is with their parents and other adults close to them.

“Things like clear communication, rules on sharing, eye contact and rules around body boundaries are all established first through the relationships that our kids have with us,” Peretz says.

The best way to prepare them is by modeling through our own behavior and interactions with other people.

And don’t feel like you need to immerse your toddler in social settings before the age of four.

“I like to tell parents to take any pressure off their shoulders that they need to be somehow making this type of play happen,” Peretz says.

If your little one is in daycare or preschool, they’re already being exposed to social play. And for families who have their toddlers at home with them, “heading out to the local park [and] playing around in the sandbox is a great opportunity for social play,” says Peretz.

Here are some ways you can prepare your toddler to make friends:

Play with them. Spending a few minutes down on the floor with your toddler lets them practice playing alongside someone else.

Model turn-taking. When playing with your toddler, making a big deal out of passing their toys back and forth introduces the concept of sharing (though they won’t really be ready to do this on their own for a while).

Role-play with their dolls or stuffed animals. Acting out scenarios with dolls is a great way to help toddlers navigate social interactions in an imaginary world (and without the pressure of being in real life). There are no real-life repercussions in play, so they’re free to experiment and make mistakes, which are valuable for learning! This is also why playing with dolls is so beneficial for social-emotional development.

Read books. Books can also help introduce toddlers to new things and there are plenty of age-appropriate titles that cover topics like feelings, community and celebrating differences.

Here are a few books that can support social-emotional development:

Co-regulation. Learning how to self-regulate is a skill that isn’t fully developed until well into adulthood, so they’ll need your help with this for a while. But you can begin laying the foundation for this important skill in toddlerhood by naming and validating their emotions and modeling healthy coping mechanisms.

Tips for Toddler Play Dates

Whether you’re at the park or play space (or just hosting friends at home), there are a few things you can do to help toddler play dates go smoothly.

Here are some tips to keep in mind for toddler play dates:

  • Stay close so you can intervene if/when conflict arises.
  • Keep playdates short and sweet (ideally an hour or two).
  • Have a few activities or toys ready.
  • Bring snacks. If things start to go downhill, toddlers love snacks.

Since toddlers are still learning impulse control and self-regulation and often aren’t completely verbal yet, hitting and biting are common occurrences. If you’re wondering what to do about these tricky behaviors, “know that biting and hitting are most commonly a sign of a child’s age and developmental level and not necessarily a red flag for something else,” says Peretz.

As an occupational therapist (aka OT), Peretz also recommends families look at the sensory component of the behavior. Toddlers need the opportunity to play and move their bodies; the American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommends toddlers get a minimum of three hours of physical activity per day. And no extravagant play structures or activities are needed—neighborhood walks and plenty of free play outdoors are sufficient.

“All that rolling, bending down, standing up, toddling around activates our toddler’s vestibular and proprioceptive sensory systems,” says Peretz, which in turn, “regulates our children and enables their central nervous system to better handle and function in a world where everything is new and so many big skills (like body boundaries) need to be mastered.”

EXPERT SOURCES

Holly Peretz, Pediatric Occupational Therapist and founder of OT Holly. Healthy Children: Social Development in Preschoolers

Zero to Three: Children with Shy or Slow to Warm Up Temperaments How Kids Learn to Play: 6 Stages of Play Development

Hashmi, S., Vanderwert, R. E., Paine, A. L., & Gerson, S. A. (2022). Doll play prompts social thinking and social talking: Representations of internal state language in the brain. Developmental Science, 25, e13163. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.13163


Briana Engelbrecht

Assistant Editor

Briana Engelbrecht is Babylist’s Assistant Editor, where she brings her passion for early childhood development and the perinatal period, plus experience as a mom of two to Babylist articles and guides. A former preschool teacher, she loves children’s picture books, cats, plants and making things.

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