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Feature Articles—Child Care


Children's Relationships with Other Children in Child Care

Sara Gable, Ph.D., Human Development and Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia


Young children form a variety of different kinds of peer relationships in child care. They have peers as friends, peers as playmates, and peers as unnoticed classmates. Each of these relationships provides an opportunity for children to practice and develop their social skills and their relationship skills. Peer relationships help children learn how to join groups of children already playing, form and maintain friendships, share personal information, avoid the bully, take turns, resolve conflicts, and help others.

Researchers have discovered that children develop their peer relationships independently from their relationships with caregivers. That is, children do not necessarily transfer their interactions with caregivers to their interactions with peers and friends. This suggests that adults need to consciously pay attention to what occurs between peers and friends when trying to understand peer relationships in the child care program. It also indicates that adults need to take the unique perspective of the child in a peer relationship when coaching the child about how to get along with other children.


Age Period Social Interaction with Peers Friendship Formation
Early Toddler
(13-24 months)
Complementary and reciprocal play Stable friendships
Late Toddler
(25-36 months)
Communication of meaning or Cooperative Pretend Play Flexibility of friendships
(3-5 years)
Social knowledge of the peer group Differentiation of friends from playmates


Social Interaction with Peers: This column describes child ease of entry into play groups, type of play with peers, and the child's sensitivity to peer communication.

Early Toddler: Social interaction is characterized by complementary and reciprocal play. Children exhibit the ability to exchange turns and roles in action. For example, you will observe children running and chasing each other, playing rudimentary games of hide and seek, and handing and receiving toys to/from one another.

Late Toddler: Social interaction is characterized by the communication of meaning, as during cooperative social pretend play. Children take on complementary pretend roles while engaging in interactive social play. This type of play depends on the symbolic function because the child must recognize that the play partner is acting out a role. For example, what happens when you arrange chairs 2 across and 3 deep, like a bus or mini van? If the children are this age, one child will probably take the role of driver and the others will become passengers and the play will begin.

Preschool: Social interaction is characterized by social knowledge of the members of the peer group. Children are aware of the behavioral characteristics of individual children. Children can make judgments about an individual child's personality traits and tendencies. Such knowledge translates into a wider range of potential playmates, play activities, and pretend play themes. For example, a child may be recognized by the group as "smart" because s/he prefers to look at books and complete puzzles. If another child is seeking a playmate for a game of Go fish, s/he may seek out the "smart" child; if the same child is wanting to play "astronauts", s/he may make select a different playmate.

Friendships: This column describes how friendship relationships look during the different developmental periods. Friendships during toddlerhood and preschool are defined as stable, dyadic relationships characterized by reciprocity and shared positive affect. Friends typically seek each other out, prefer to be together, and enjoy each other's company. In the research world, friendships are typically indicated by mutuality; that is, each partner considers the other as the "best friend".

Early toddlerhood friendships are stable and characterized by emotional responsiveness and reciprocity. Young toddler friends often giggle a lot together and seek out one another.

Late toddlerhood friendships become more flexible; different friendships serve different play functions; and, children are more overt and intentional in the language that they use to select their play partners. Friendships and playmates are not markedly different.

Preschool Friendships are differentiated from playmates; preschool friends share more positive and less negative emotion, more reciprocity, and are more mutually responsive to one another.

Notes on Children's Friendships

Young children tend to keep reciprocal friendships when they can. However, children also show the ability to form temporary friendships and to replace friends when they move to a new program or community.

Children who have more intimate friendships tend to engage in more elaborate fantasy play. These friends typically play together a lot and select each other to play with.



Howes, C. (1988). Peer interaction of young children. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 53(1).



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