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How Important is Friendship at 3-4 Years Old?

AHL - Friendships for young children
An adult and young child form a heart shape with their hands. | Sasiistock/Getty Images/iStockphoto
With COVID-19, many parents worry their kids are missing out on the development of critical friendship skills at a young age, but experts say there are things families can do at home.
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When I was 4 years old, I had a best friend from preschool named Sasha Kenton. I vividly remember playing at her house — she had all the Rainbow Brite dolls and Starlite, Rainbow Brite’s horse. I remember going to an art museum with her, her mom, and my mom, and playing with her at our preschool.

I also remember other things from those preschool days: taking naps in bunk beds; learning to ask “how many minutes until I can use that toy?”; and one boy who was always unruly and whose name escapes me now.

Yet, somehow, I seem to remember nothing from my 3-year-old days. My younger brother was born that year, and you’d think I would at least remember that, but I don’t.

My memories and experiences are common for kids at that age, according to childhood development experts. There is a big difference between a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old, what each child will remember, and what friendships look like at that age.

“That is marked as a time of a lot of growth, where 3-year-old brains are developing really quickly, they’re creating a lot of neuron connections and doing developmental tasks,” said Janine Domingues, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “It’s also a time when kids start school, start being away from their parents. Because of those different things, it creates a lot of memories that can last.”

The age typically marks a transition between two types of play as well: from parallel play, which involves kids playing separately near each other, to more interactive play, said Eileen Kennedy Moore, a child psychologist and author of “Growing Friendships: A Kid’s Guide to Making and Keeping Friends.”

“Very young children are capable of lovely, lovely friendships,” she said. “They definitely have preferences for liking one kid more than another kid. But their friendships are based on what kids are nearby, are accessible to them, and also like to do the same things they do.”

At age 3, kids are not very good at imagining others’ perspectives, she said.

“You see the outrage of, ‘How could you put the blocks that way, that’s not how they go,’” she said. “And they’re not reliable friends. They’ll say, ‘You’re not my friend today.’”

But studies have shown kids at 3 and 4 years old have continuity in friendships, meaning someone they are friends with, they’ll still say are their friends four to six months later, she said.

“There’s tenderness. They might say, ‘I’m going to marry this one and love her forever,’” Kennedy Moore said. “If they see a friend crying, they’ll try to comfort them.”

Kids may not have lasting memories of this time except for one or two “near and dear buddies,” but they will remember the fun of playing with friends, said Michelle Borba, a child psychologist and author of “Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine.”

“At 3, they play next to each other, and they could be imitating, so if they’re doing finger painting together, they’re just looking to see what the other guy is doing.” she said. “At this age, parents play an enormous role in friendship making. They choose friends who are living in proximity, so it’s, ‘He lives next door, my mom brings him over, so he’s my best friend.’ That means we can introduce different kinds of friends, different ages, races, and that’s positive as well.”

While kids may not remember many specific details from this age, they will remember feelings associated with their memories, said Dr. Resham Batra, a pediatrician at Sharp Rees-Stealy San Diego.

“If there’s a lot of tension in the household, that could affect the child, but if home is nurturing and supportive, even if they can’t make new friends, if they interact with a few people and have a supportive environment at home, they may not have severe effects down the road,” she said.

The rapid development in relationships and friendships that typically happens at this age is a concern for many parents during this era of COVID-19. Parents worry their kids are missing out if they aren’t in school or aren’t having play dates and other interactions with kids.

“Being in a child care setting at this age is definitely important for socialization skills, because it’s at that age when they learn about cooperation, communication, and dealing with conflict among peers,” she said.

While it might be difficult to keep tension away from young kids during the pandemic, Batra said just talking to kids about their emotions can help a lot.

“It’s important to have these conversations so it’s actually a positive emotion, so you can say that everybody is safe, ask how they’re feeling, and when they talk about their feelings, reassure them it’s OK to have these feelings,” she said.

Domingues with the Child Mind Institute said kids are going to be missing a piece of that development without play dates and schools, “but parents can still create opportunities to get those skills.”

For example, kids can practice sharing and what it means to patiently wait at home with their parents.

“It’s different from when interacting with an adult, but you can still create a space to practice those skills,” she said. “It also just takes one play date, so if it’s safe for kids to play on a playground with one other child, that’s great.”

If an outdoor play date with even one other kid doesn’t feel safe, Domingues recommended short five- or 10-minute virtual play dates where kids can show each other their toys or talk about their experiences.
Kennedy Moore reminded parents that even if kids aren’t in school or having play dates, they’re not totally isolated because they still have interactions with parents and siblings. Take advantage of that by teaching young kids to take turns, wait their turn, and ask and answer questions.

“At this age, you start to see imaginative play, and that’s something parents can help them with, because it’s right at the edge of their cognitive ability and that’s really hard and exciting,” she said.

To do that, parents can play along with kids’ imagining and teaching them to think about others’ perspectives.

“What fuels the development from ‘love the one you’re with’ to lasting friendships is increasing their ability to understand others’ perspectives,” she said. “When parents talk more about feelings, in books, movies, and daily life, children understand more of someone else’s perspective, so you can narrate what’s happening.”

Kennedy Moore called it a “pull for kindness,” where you might say, “Daddy is tired, what can you do to help daddy?”

She also said teaching empathy is reliant on helping children learn to calm themselves. For example, Kennedy Moore cited a study where kids played with a doll that was made to fall apart when they touched it.

“The investigator shows the kid, and says, ‘This is my favorite doll,’ and as soon as a kid holds it, it falls apart and breaks,” she said. “The kids who became overwhelmed by their own feelings were not able to be kind or empathic, whereas the ones who were still upset but could keep it within that range, they were more likely to be able to respond in a kind way to the researcher.”

To teach this calming technique, she recommended using “name it to tame it,” where the parent describes what the child is feeling.

“You’re feeling blank because blank,” Kennedy Moore said. “You’re feeling frustrated because you wanted to go to the park this afternoon.”

“There’s something magical about wrapping kids' feelings up in words,” she added. “When parents do it, it’s like holding half the weight of those big feelings. We all feel better when someone gets it.”

But Batra also stressed that young kids are resilient and a little practice at home plus a safe interaction with one other child can help smooth over what kids are missing out on due to COVID-19.

“Talk to kids about it. Kids understand more than we give them credit for, so if you’re explaining things, they’re pretty resilient. If they have one friend, they may not feel they’re missing out on having four friends,” she said.

“Relationships at that age are very important. [I] don’t want to take away from that, so we should try to facilitate those interactions while still being safe,” she added.

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