The Facts on How Kids’ Friendships Work

The six styles of childhood play, details on how kids' friendships work – and warning signs that your child is having friendship troubles.

“Did you make any new friends today?”

“Who did you sit with at lunch?”

“I saw you playing alone earlier. Why?”

Back to school means back to worry for many parents of young children – including concerns about how their kids are getting along with their classmates.

Questions like the ones above are common among anxious parents who want reassurance that their kids aren’t being left out.

This source of worry was pointed out in a 2019 New York Times article, Decoding Your Kid’s Friendship Drama. With input from childhood mental health experts, it explains the developmental phases behind friendship issues and when parents should get involved.

But one thing that will offer some parents reassurance is this: playing alone isn’t always a red flag, the article points out.

“Any preschool director will tell you it’s not uncommon for one kid to be sitting off alone,” Katie Hurley, an author and child psychotherapist based in California told the NYT. “Some kids love loud and noisy play, some kids like puzzles and quiet play and digging in the sand alone.”

6 stages of play

What else should parents know about childhood play and how it progresses? Here’s a look at the six main stages of play, according to

1. Unoccupied play

This type of “play” doesn’t look much like play. It describes the seemingly-random movements babies make.

2. Solitary play

This is when babies and toddlers start to play on their own without engaging a parent or other children. It can also describe when kids choose to play alone at any age.

3. Onlooker play

This stage of play is when kids, usually toddlers, watch other children playing. They might ask the other kids what they’re doing, but they make no effort to join in.

4. Parallel play

With this type of play, children sit near or next to each other but stick to their own game or toy. They don’t engage each other. Read more on this stage here.

5. Associative play

By age 3 or 4, kids start trying to interact with each other – but without rules or organization. “During associative play, children within the group have similar goals (for example: building a tower out of blocks),” explains.

6. Social play

This type of play is the one parents are most familiar with – when kids work together, set rules, role-play, practice taking turns and so on.

When to worry

While some variation can be expected in the stages, parents should also keep in mind some common signs that could mean your child is being bullied or having other social troubles.

Consider these five signs that a child is facing bullying, courtesy of Find more information here.

  1. Unexplained injuries
  2. Lost or destroyed clothing, books or other belongings
  3. Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness
  4. Changes in eating habits, like not eating lunch at school
  5. Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares

If you believe your child is being bullied, follow the steps to get help right away.

And if your child is having other friendship difficulties, consider teaching your kids some of the most important “rules” of friendship.


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