As three-, four-, and five-year-olds grow, they become increasingly more social beings. By three, children’s physical development has allowed them to move around independently and they are curious about their environment and the people in it. Cognitive skills are developing and children are able to recognize people who are familiar and people who are not.
Three-year-olds show growing interest in other children and adults, but often prefer being with one adult or playing alone in close proximity to other children. Four- and five-year-olds are becoming social beings and often prefer the company of other children to that of adults. Children will begin to express their preference for playing with some children over others. Playing and getting along is an important aspect of social development for four- and five-year-olds.
Three-year-olds still are developing interest in other children but still prefer parallel play. Parallel play is the act of playing near or next to other children, often engaged in the same activity or playing with the same toy, but not involving the other child in play or relying on the other child to play. Because three-year-olds can be very egocentric, they have difficulty taking another person’s perspective. They can have a difficult time cooperating and sharing with others. Playing and getting along with someone requires that you have the ability to take another person’s point of view. For example, three-year-old Caroline, returning from the playground, wants the toy stuffed cow that she was playing with before she went outside. Her classmate Emily is playing with it now. Caroline walks up to Emily and snatches the cow, saying “I was playing with this first. This is my cow.” Both Emily and Caroline begin to cry but neither will let go of the cow.
Three-year-olds are becoming increasingly more sensitive to their impact on others’ feelings and emotions. When they see another person crying, they often begin to cry. They also attribute the crying to something that they did. Three-year-olds also are learning how to negotiate themselves in social situations. They will frequently spend time carefully watching and observing other children as if they are trying to figure out how social interactions work and how they fit into a situation.
Developing social relations is an important milestone for four-year-olds. For many four-year-olds, the school experience will be the first time that they will have to negotiate getting along with a group of children their own age. Although four-year-olds still engage in parallel play, they are becoming increasingly interested in playing with other children. Along with playing with others comes the need to play cooperatively and fairly. These are skills that four-year-olds need help in developing. They have difficulty sharing and often believe that things need to be their way and no other. When conflicts do arise, they want to solve them but lack the verbal skills to do so. Helping children understand turn taking, sharing, and being respectful of their peers is a major challenge when working with four-year-olds. Activities can be structured to facilitate cooperative social skills.
Four-year-olds are beginning to make distinctions between children who they prefer to play with and those who they have no interest in. Although most friendships at this age are controlled by parental choice and proximity, children are beginning to make requests and clearly play better with some children than they do with others (Rubin, Coplan, Nelson, & Cheah, 1999).
Five-year-olds are very social and frequently prefer other children’s company to that of adults. They have developed some effective cooperative skills and have learned, for the most part, how to get along and play with others. They are beginning to internalize social rules. Jake understands that if he hits his friend because he wants to pitch the ball, his friend will become angry and will not want to play at all. Play activities typically occur in one-to-one situations or in small groups. At this age, children are also expressing preferences over children who they want to play with and those who they do not. Friendships are becoming more clearly defined. Five-year-olds also are beginning to understand the power of social rejection. In the middle of arguing about the rules of a game they were playing, Lee says to Evan, “If you don’t play the right way, you can’t be my friend anymore, and you can’t come over to my house.” Children at this age can be loving, affectionate friends and also have the ability to say things to one another that can be very hurtful. Teachers need to be aware of the social structure of the relationships among children in their classroom. It is important to help children become aware of other children’s feelings and develop a sense of respect for others.
Social relations can affect children’s cognitive and emotional development. A socially rejected child will be a child that is not happy at school. Helping children get along with one another will promote a positive classroom attitude and instill a love of learning in all children.
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