Between the ages of 3 and 5, your preschooler is becoming a more social creature. Where once he may have thrown tantrums when frustrated or resolved a dispute by hitting or biting, he is now learning to share and cooperate. Here is what you need to know about social development in your preschooler.
Preschoolers and Fantasy Play
You may have noticed that your preschooler spends much of her time in fantasy play. She is starting to move past "parallel play" -- when children play alongside each other rather than with each other -- and is beginning to actively engage with other children.
At this age, play is more focused on make-believe than on toys or games. Preschoolers love to construct elaborate scenarios and assign each other roles to play. Going grocery shopping or going to the post office may seem mundane to you, but your child probably finds these chores fascinating and may mimic them in her make-believe play.
Make-believe is how children "try on" adult roles and behaviors they see in the world around them. This activity helps them develop important social skills such as taking turns, cooperating, and paying attention.
'Girly Girl' or 'All Boy'?
Fantasy play also gives your little boy or girl a chance to explore gender roles. Preschool-age boys will generally gravitate to masculine make-believe characters like the strapping superhero, while girls will adopt feminine roles, wanting to be the mommy when playing house, for example. Even if your home doesn't model traditional "masculine" and "feminine" roles, your child is exposed to these ideas from books, TV, extended family, and friends. So don't be surprised if your little boy, who at 2 loved to push a baby doll around in a stroller, has abandoned that for rowdy games with his male friends.
Your preschooler may also go through phases where she wants to "try on" the role of the opposite sex and may suddenly become intensely interested in an older brother's toys or clothes. She may then swing back to the opposite extreme, insisting on wearing only pink dresses and bows in her hair. This is all normal experimentation and shouldn't be a concern.
Your Preschooler: Off to School
Around age 3 or 4, many children are starting school for the first time. This may be their first experience in a large group of children their own age, and it may take some getting used to. Your child suddenly has to share toys, take turns, communicate clearly, and cooperate with other children, and she'll probably need some help from the adults in her life. Many preschool activities are designed to work on developing these social skills.
If your child isn't in school yet, it's important to provide plenty of opportunities for her to interact with other children her age, whether it's through playdates, trips to the playground, or organized activities like music classes or gymnastics.
Preschoolers and Peer Relationships
By age 5, many children are beginning to prefer the company of other children over the company of adults. They may also show a preference for certain children over others. Your child may have someone he calls his "best friend" now. It's important for parents to nurture these friendships. Encourage your child to have his best friend over for a playdate, because being allowed to "show off" his home and possessions will help build his self-esteem and confidence.
Older preschoolers are beginning to understand and internalize social norms. Your 5-year-old probably realizes that if he doesn't let his friends have a turn, they won't want to play with him anymore. This helps to guide his behavior and choices.
While 5-year-olds can be wonderfully loving friends, they can also be hurtful. At this age, children are beginning to understand the power of social rejection. Don't be surprised to hear an argument between two 5-year-olds culminating with the declaration, "If you don't let me have the ball, I'm not going to be your friend anymore!"
Most of the time, this is just normal 5-year-old interaction. But it's important to keep an eye on mean behavior and make sure your child isn't ganging up or picking on others excessively. Bullying can happen even at this young age.
Your Challenging Preschooler
Your 5-year-old's friends are more than just her playmates. They are a major influence on her. To that end, you may find her trying on behaviors that are new (and unwelcome) to you. For example, If your child's best friend talks about a particular TV show, your child may suddenly demand to watch it, even if TV is forbidden in your home. She may insist on a sugary cereal because it is her friend's favorite.
Your child may also start to "talk back" more around this time, defying you or even calling you names. Though infuriating, this behavior is actually a good sign that your child is learning to test authority and be more independent. Try to react calmly, because a big emotional reaction is often what your child is seeking in these situations.
Your preschooler may start bickering more with older siblings around this time, too. He thinks he ought to be able to do everything his big brother can do and gets frustrated when he can't. You may find yourself caught in the middle of sibling squabbles on a daily basis.
Preschooler Social Development: Why It Matters
A growing body of evidence points to the importance of social development in young children. Research suggests that if a child hasn't developed a basic set of social skills by age 6, he is at risk for social problems into adulthood. In fact, how well your child gets along with other children is a better indicator of how well he'll function as an adult than behavior, grades, or IQ.
Of course, healthy social development doesn't mean your child has to be a "social butterfly." Each child has her own personality and temperament, and what's important is the quality of her social interactions, not the quantity.