Parents of preschoolers are familiar with the refrain “No one plays with me at school”. Just about every preschool student or child care attendee will say something like this at some point. More often than not, the child was not purposefully excluded, the child more likely was waiting to be invited to play and the invitation didn’t come. Preschool students tend to just absorb others into their play rather than think to invite others. Often children are shy or just don’t know how to approach others and ask to play. Since parents can’t be around to coach their children through social interactions (and probably shouldn’t do that too much anyhow), there are ways to send kids to preschool with some tools to make friends and play with others.
Build Them Up
At Prime Time Early Learning, our teachers know that an effective strategy to get children to have healthy peer interactions is to build up the child’s self esteem to give them the confidence to approach others. Many adults tend to praise product and outcome instead of effort. Old habits are hard to break, but getting children to feel good about their abilities and character requires thoughtful praise with intention. Kids get a lot of “good job” from adults, and after awhile they begin to tune it out because it ceases to mean anything when they hear it in response to everything they do. Children also get a lot of compliments on things they had no control over, like their hair color or height, so comments such as “you have pretty eyes” or “You’re such a big boy!” don’t do much to boost up their self worth because they made no effort to be tall. What does work is praising effort without evaluating the product. Making observations and commenting on their work makes them feel noticed, important, and capable. Instead of “You’re so pretty in that dress” we can acknowledge their pride in their outfit by asking them if they dressed themselves, or if it is their favorite dress, t-shirt, or new shoes, etc. This makes them proud of dressing themselves and gives them an opportunity to tell adults about their favorite color or character they wore that day. Likewise, adults can acknowledge the work kids have done at their preschool without putting a value judgment on the work, but by praising the effort. When a child brings home a picture they have drawn, and they ask, “Do you like it?” parents can respond with “Do you like it? Tell me about it. I see you used a lot of this color…is that a color you like a lot?” The child will hear that their work is what matters, and that their opinion of their work is the most important opinion. If they like their own work, they will feel good.
Give them a script, and practice at home
Children, especially preschoolers, love to imitate adults, so getting them to do the right thing means showing them the right thing to do. At home with children, parents can come up with simple phrases to help kids navigate social interaction, and then practice them around the house. Giving kids the words makes it easier on them to approach friends to engage in play. This is especially true if the child is an only child and does not have siblings to help navigate social interactions. Phrases like “Do you want to play this game with me?” or “Can I play with you guys?” may seem overly obvious to adults, but kids need help with this. Do a few practice run-throughs, having parents take turns approaching the child and the other parent and inviting them to play. Have children practice approaching both parents and asking them to play, and then reinforce the practice by playing the child’s game. Let kids know that everyone is a little shy about asking to play, and that they are not the only one who is feeling lonely or sad at their school, wishing for a friend. Some kids just need to know that other kids are afraid to ask to play too, they’re not the only ones who need help making friends.
Prime Time Early Learning Centers in New Jersey and New York integrate esteem building socio-emotional education in all of our Child Care, Pre-K, After-School and Camp programs. With proper guidance, practice and intention, children will not only be capable of effectively interacting with peers, but will also be confident enough to enjoy their own company and play by themselves too, an equally important skill.