By Eric Braun, author of Make a Friend, Be a Friend
Kids and summer break—they go together like chips and cheese sauce. Like ice cream and cones, ketchup and fries. After a stressful school year, kids deserve some nice, delicious downtime.
While summer can be a blissful trip to the swimming pool concession stand for many kids, it can be more like a bellyache for those who have trouble making friends. When school is out, it can be hard to find other kids to hang out with, and it can be easy to slip out of the practice of taking turns, conversing, compromising, resolving conflicts, and socializing. But playing with other kids, going to birthday parties and sleepovers, and having a best buddy—these are not simply fun diversions. Making and being friends are among the most critical skills young children learn, and they are skills that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. Making friends boosts social development and improves self-esteem.
Here are a few things you can do to help children make friends, keep up friendships, and develop friendship skills while out of school this summer, whether they are super social or tend to struggle. All kids can use a little boost.
Play with Them—and Coach Them
Yes, we are talking about building friendships with peers, but kids learn social skills at home first.
- Play games that involve taking turns and winning and losing, and talk about how all these things feel. It’s not always fun to lose, but you can be a good sport by not complaining, pouting, or accusing the other person of cheating. It’s not always easy to take turns, but it’s important to think about how the other person would feel if they didn’t get a turn.
- Imaginative play is another way to practice cooperation. Maybe you both want to be Batman, so you have to negotiate. Practice using everyone’s ideas in play.
- Take turns with that super-cool coveted toy. You know the one.
When you play with children, you give them a safe place to practice these skills. And all this playing has the built-in benefit of developing kids’ conversation skills. You can help children take turns here too. Each person gets to talk. When the other person is talking, remind kids to listen. Asking questions is key. You can even arm your child with a couple stock questions they can ask a friend or potential friend, such as “What movies do you like?” or “What fun things do you do with your family?” This can help them get past those awkward moments when they don’t know what to say, and it also helps them identify kids with whom they share interests. Those are the kids who can turn into real friends, not just acquaintances.
While playing, remember to ask about children’s feelings about what’s going on and share your own. This can help kids develop their empathy muscles, and we all know that empathy is the secret ingredient in friendships.
Set Up Playdates
It sounds super basic, but sometimes we forget the tried-and-true methods. Just because your child is school age doesn’t mean they’ve outgrown playdates. Reach out to parents whose kids your child has played with before or mentioned from school or activities. Or just ask your child who they’d like to see. Invite that person over.
With the playdate underway, take this opportunity to listen in. If your child has trouble in a certain area—say they tend to yell or get angry over disagreements, or they talk a lot more than they listen, or they seem overly shy or unengaged—you can remember that and work on it with them later. (Resist the urge to jump in and save them in the moment unless it gets bad.)
Go to Playgrounds, Parks, and Pools
Find the place where the kids are and go there. Try to go about the same time every day so you can catch other families who have a similar routine. If you have a park in your neighborhood, or if school is nearby, you are likely to run into families you recognize or know—with kids who might also be looking for friends. Your child might meet someone from preschool they forgot about or a friend from class they haven’t yet connected with outside of school.
Being outdoors and engaging in physical play often makes socializing easier for young kids. Your child could bring a couple super-fun toys that might attract the attention of other kids. If necessary, you could help jump-start a game. My kids always enjoyed pretending that the big bridge/slide/ladder structure was a spaceship or boat. You can be the captain! Helm the ship and fly through space, but be sure to watch out for those asteroids! Once the kids are engaged, see if you can slip away and let them play alone.
This isn’t so much about making friends, but if you’re at the pool, make sure you bring money for the concession stand! Okay, maybe it is about making friends. You can buy a couple tubs of chips and cheese for your child to share. (And one for you, of course.)
While you’re out in nature among the playing children, take the opportunity to chat with other parents (instead of scrolling Instagram!). You might find a match for your kid’s next playdate.
Go to Community Activities
Above I talked about helping kids identify other children with shared interests. This is the basis of true friendship. If two children love firefighters or drawing or trains or soccer, they have a good chance of developing a deeper relationship as they explore that topic together.
So, if your child is a reader, go to storytime at the library. If your child likes art, sign up for art lessons. Or try a music class, chess club, ultimate frisbee camp, cardboard camp (seriously—Google it), martial arts, swimming lessons, nature class or camp, drama class or camp, ice cream making class, or any of the many team leagues, camps, or free activities that are surely available in your area. When kids get home, don’t ask, “How was karate today?” or “What did you do at drama camp?” Instead, ask, “Who did you play with?” Take note—that’s a kid you might want to set up a playdate with.
Like all good things, summer must end. Popsicles give way to lunchboxes. Can you find out who will be in your child’s class this fall? If so, and you can identify someone who might be a friend to your child, give that family a call and set up a playdate. The beginning of the school year can be intimidating, but it’s a lot easier when you have a friend.
Eric Braun writes and edits books for readers of all ages, specializing in academic and social and emotional topics. Books he has worked on have won awards and honors including the Eugene M. Emme Astronautical Literature Award, a Foreword Book of the Year Gold Award, a Benjamin Franklin Award, and many others. A McKnight Artist Fellow for his fiction, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two sons. Say “Hey!” to Eric at heyericbraun.com.
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