Watching toddlers making friends for the first time can be a delight. It’s good for your young child to start learning how to play well with other children. This lays the groundwork for later social skills.

Toddlers making friends: What to expect

When children are very young – aged 1-2 years – they generally play with the other children around them, rather than choosing a ‘best’ friend. Many of your child’s playmates will be the children of people you know – for example, friends, family or parents you meet at playgroup.

Toddlers vary in how social they are. Some are naturally more sociable and can manage more playmates, whereas others are more comfortable with fewer playmates.

As your child gets older and develops verbal skills, she’s likely to start telling you who she likes playing with.

Preparing your child for toddler friendships

Your toddler doesn’t yet understand the skills she needs for friendship, like sharing, taking turns and solving problems.

You can help your toddler start learning and practising these skills by spending time playing together. Through play, you can show her how to be a good friend and play well with others.

For example, you could help your child learn to take turns by playing with her and practising taking turns as you play. Try taking turns to add blocks to a tower or to kick a ball, and prompt your child by saying ‘My turn’ and ‘Your turn’.

You can model sharing too. For example, if you’re playing with playdough you might give your child a piece of your playdough and say, ‘Let’s share my playdough – some for you and some for me’.

When your child has played with you like this for a while, you could ask her to share some of her playdough. When she does, say something like ‘Nice sharing’, or ‘Thank you for sharing with me’.

You can also use toys like teddy bears or dolls to help your child learn friendship skills. Use the teddy bears to ask for turns, share toys and look after their teddy friends. Your child will watch this fun game and copy what she sees – sometimes, at least! When your child takes turns or shares something, give her lots of praise.

Helping toddler playdates go smoothly

Play is how young children learn. The more your child plays with other children, the more likely she is to learn to play well.

You can help playdates go smoothly by setting things up for your child and her playmates. For example:

  • Ask your child whether there are any toys she wants to put away before friends come over. Or you can put away your child’s favourite toys yourself and help your child choose some toys and games she’s happy to share.

  • Set up games where toddlers can play side by side but don’t necessarily have to take turns. At this age, they’re learning to share and it will take time. Turn-taking games can often end in tears, but toddlers usually do well with sandpit play, painting, building with blocks, throwing balls, or playing with dolls and cars.

  • Try to have lots of toys for the children to play with so they’re not competing for one favourite thing.

  • You don’t need expensive toys or highly structured activities for children to have fun with their friends. The more relaxed they are, the easier it is for them to enjoy being with a friend.

Here are some tips to help toddlers get along:

  • Keep playdates relatively short – say, 45 minutes to an hour. This means you can finish the playdate while it’s going well, rather than waiting until one or both children get tired, cranky and teary. Your child will remember the playdate as something good and will want to do it again.

  • Sit with children for a while when they start playing. Wait until they’ve found their rhythm and are playing happily together before you leave them to play.

  • Stay within their sight so you can see and hear what’s going on. This lets you step in quickly if play is getting too rough, or there are squabbles over toys. Being able to see you will also help your child feel safe and comfortable in this new situation.

Some children with disability can have additional challenges when making friends. A child behaviour professional might be able to give you some strategies and support to develop your child’s skills. You can read more about play and friendship for children with disability.

When things go wrong on toddler playdates

Young children can get very frustrated quickly and often don’t have the words to express how they feel. This can lead to them being aggressive towards a friend when things aren’t going their way.

It helps if you’re close by to watch how things are going. If you sense things are getting tense, you could distract the children by saying something like, ‘Let’s play with these trucks. James, you can have the blue one. Sam, you have the red one’. Then step away so they can go on with their play.

If your child behaves aggressively, you can firmly say ‘Stop’ and then tell her exactly what you want her to do. For example, ‘Stop! Hitting hurts. We don’t hit people. Spades are for digging’. This will help your child learn that being aggressive isn’t the right way to play.

Very young children might not understand that another child who’s playing with their toys isn’t going to take them home. It can help if you reassure your child that the toys are still hers and will stay at home with her.

If your child has a lot of trouble playing with other children, or her play is very different from the way other children play, it might help to talk with your child and the General Practitioner (GP) or paediatrician.

Other parents can be a great source of ideas about helping toddlers make friends and setting up toddler playdates.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

Explore more