The secret lives of tots

The secret lives of tots

When you’re meeting up with other mamas, what’s your little one getting out of their playdate? We find out what goes on in the sandpit

Playdates copy

Learning how to make friends is one of life’s most important skills, and it is one that develops very early on, says psychologist Dr Angharad Ruskin. So what can we do to help our tots have a positive experience of making friends?

Firstly, pre-school children don’t think in the way that older children do. For example, preschool children will find it very hard to take on another person’s perspective. This is called ‘egocentrism’, and it means that it can be hard for little children to understand why other children don’t want to play a game their way or play with a certain toy right now. Because of this, preschool children often spend a lot of time playing on their own or engaged in ‘parallel play’ (where they are playing alongside, but not with, their friend). This doesn’t mean your child is unsociable or has some difficulties in socialising. Even when they are playing alone, children can still learn about socialising.

Playdates offer preschool children the opportunity to learn social skills such as turn-taking, negotiating and taking on other people's needs. They also help children to develop a sense of who they are and what they like, and language is also developed through chatting and listening to others of the same age (as well as grown-ups).

When children are quite new to one another it would be worth helping to structure the playdate by setting up activities or toys, and being close by to guide the children through their play. And then, as children become more familiar with one another, they may not need quite so much guidance. Parents can also model positive social skills by chatting to the children, asking questions and listening to the answers. If your child is quiet and observant, you will need to take particular care in how you introduce them into new social settings. Expect them to want to sit on your knee and hold on to you for the first few times. Stay positive and encourage them to join in.

If they don’t want to join in, chat to them about what the other children are doing so that your child remains interested. As your child “warms up” they will be happier to move away from you and play with other children, and once they have built up some friendships in that setting, they will feel far more comfortable.

Just remember to keep it short. Small children get tired very quickly, and it’s much nicer to end a playdate on a high than wait until both children have melted into sobbing heaps. For pre-school children playdates should last no longer than 1- 1.5 hours. Keeping it short and sweet will make it more likely to succeed and therefore more likely for the children to want to repeat the experience.

Finally, don’t expect the path towards friendship to run smoothly. There are a lot of mistakes to be made, and these are necessary for children to grow into adults who know what to do and what not to do when it comes to making friends.

Even very good pre-school friends will frequently squabble and fight. Your refereeing will help your child to learn the essential skills of turn taking and negotiating.

Dr Angharad Rudkin is a clinical psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and has worked with children, adolescents and families for over 15 years. Dr Rudkin has teamed up with VTech to support the launch of its new fun and interactive range, Toot-Toot Friends. For more information please visit


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