Let Them Grow: Helping Toddlers Form Authentic Friendships

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Fostering Friendships for Toddlers

By encouraging your toddler to be a good friend, they will make good friends and have lasting meaningful relationships into their later years and even adulthood!

Watching toddlers and preschoolers grow and mature is a beautiful and amazing thing. It is such a small window and one day it swings open and the toddler who was waddling and whopping with his friends just six months ago, is now the preschooler with a strong moral compass and a kind heart. It is remarkable how fast this transformation can be and it is even more incredible to be apart of it. Watching early friendships form, fostering a child natural longing for meaningful relationships, is awe-inspiring and humbling at the same time.

Laying the Groundwork: The Foundation of Friendships

Younger toddlers do not yet have the ability to see the world from others perspective. So often it is hard for them to play “with” other children. They often play “alongside” them instead. It’s not that they don’t like or care for one another, it’s just where they are developmentally. Children even at birth love one another; love spending time together.  We are social creatures; it is what we do. Put two infants face to face and anyone can see how that interaction is special in itself. However, babies and young toddler haven’t really developed a sense of what is a friendship. It is not a give and take yet; it is more a large game of take.

Around 18 months may be a good time to start conversations around the importance of building friendships; the significance of people we love and of those who love us. These are traits of empathy that toddlers will continue to develop well into adolescences. When children learn the word “mine” they begin to gain a sense of self, and in turn, become more aware of others. They begin to recognize the feelings of others, understanding that they too feel; this is the groundwork for building empathy.

Help Foster Friendships

Toddlers can’t call, text or email one another. They are not on Intstagram nor Facebook and can’t #hashtag their friends. However, they can still connect to build fast and meaningful relationships with a little help.

Being a good Friend: Toddlers and preschoolers are just learning the ropes of society, and often cross that invisible thin line of social acceptance. Help teach your child the ins and outs of being a good friend by modeling such behavior. Help them learn how to communicate appropriately and treat their friends with respect and kindness. Help them recognize how good it makes us feel when we make others happy, or vice versa when we make someone sad. By encouraging your child to be a good friend, she will make good friends and have lasting meaningful relationships.

Talk about friendships: Help your child acknowledge their friends. Talk about what they did at preschool, day care, or on their play date. Discuss why we are thankful for friends, what makes them special, and how friends make us happy. Friendships between toddlers are unique and very personal, so try to recognize this and help foster it.

Make Play Dates: Often it may seem awkward to reach out to other parents of toddlers, but this is how friendships begin. Friendships take practice, so try different combinations. Somethings a mix of toddler and preschooler can make for a volatile combination. Other times, different personalities balances themselves well. Try different children and different size groups. Pair your child with someone you feel would be a good fit, or a friend she met at the farmers’ market, town park. library or parents’ center. If your child expresses desire to spend time with a certain child, do your best to accommodate them. This friendship may be short-term, but will have long-term effects. Check Hilltown Families list of Weekly Suggested Events for playgroups and story hours for easy ways to connect with other families with children the same age.

Make Memories: By helping your child make memories with another child, you are giving the most astounding gift. Help your child remember these friends: take photos; collect mementos; keep a photo or scrapbook of his friendships. When possible, invite other children along to an activity; just sharing a space or a common experience can build great friendships.

Toddler Play Date

7 Helpful Hints:

  1. Keep it short: Two hours max is long enough for a younger age group.
  2. Keep it intimate: Meeting at big parks, fairs or parties can limit one to one time and make it difficult for the children to play together.
  3. Keep it simple: Have fun, meet outdoors to eliminate the big clean up.
  4. Be organized: Make sure there are enough of the same supplies for each friend.
  5. Have a prepared snack: Take a snack break. Every toddler loves snack time.
  6. Know when to end: If the children are tired or on the verge of breaking down, recognize this and call it a day.
  7. Resist intervening: Try to let the children work out any conflict on their own or at least give them a fair shot at trying.

8 Toddler Friendly Play Date Ideas:

  1. Sandbox meeting: Meet at a local sandbox and bring lots of toys.
  2. Bubbles: Meet at the park with lots of bubbles accessories.
  3. Truck or baby wash: Set up buckets, toys to wash, soap and wash clothes.
  4. Hike: Take a short walk to the river or an open field. Bring toys to share.
  5. Fruit picking: Meet up at a pick your own farm and give each child their own bucket.
  6. Art time: Set up several open-ended toddler friendly art supplies (paper, glitter, stickers, stamps, scissors, crayons and markers) and let them have free reign.
  7. Paint the town: Meet at a park with chalk and let the children draw on the sidewalks.
  8. Swim date: Meet at the local lake. Set up a child area and let them play in the sand and take a dip.

(photo credit: Ahsan Saeed)


Candice Chouinard has worked with youth of all ages and backgrounds, creating and implementing programing for children. She revels in hand-on, long-term, messy projects that are both fun and educational. Candice comes from a background in creative writing, as well as, child development and psychology. She owns and operates a day care in Northampton, MA.

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