How Toddlers “Do” Friendship

i spent ten years as a tenured faculty member at The Ohio State University and one of my lines of research was how toddlers, children between 18 months and 3 years of age, make friends, keep friends, and interact with their friends. What I discovered doing that research was both surprising and heartwarming. I found that not only do toddlers form very close friendships, but they maintain these friendships over time, and interact with their friends in ways that are very different from the way they interact with other children who are not friends. We have long known that friendships play an important role in the lives of adults and teens, but only recently have we come to see that even the youngest children can form strong friendships that have as much meaning to them as ours do for us. The following are a few of the things I discovered while doing that research and that teachers and parents of young children should keep in mind.

  • Toddlers need time to form friendships
    • While you may meet a person and know pretty quickly that you will be friends, toddlers need time to form their friendships. This means that they need to have many opportunities to interact with the same children to really get to know them. Further, they need unstructured time to play together. This also means that it may be more difficult for a child who attends a program part time to form strong friendships at early ages. If your child is not in an early childhood setting going someplace like a museum on a regular day of the week with another group of parents/caregivers can help your child begin to form friendships.


  • Toddlers choose their own friends
    • Time with others by itself will not automatically lead to a friendship for toddlers. Just because you and your best adult friend get your toddlers together to play every day does not mean that they will become friends too. In my research toddlers chose their friends the same way you do–through shared interests during play and personal qualities that appealed to them. While adults can certainly encourage a friendship you can’t force children to be friends.
  • Toddlers demonstrate their friendship by imitating each other
    • Of all the things I discovered in my research this was perhaps the most surprising and exciting! Toddler friends imitated each other in play, with one friend performing a behavior and the other doing the same or a very similar behavior immediately after. In addition, friends signaled their relationship by using identical objects. For example, if one of the friends had a blue ball in her right hand the other friend in the pair would have (or find) one as well—same ball, same hand! Up until this point I had always seen imitation as just copying each other—it was not until I watched hours of video very carefully that I saw that imitating each other was the signal for friendship. This should not have been surprising, after all, we choose our friends because we have something in common with them—an advanced form of imitation. But toddlers can’t look at their peers and thing “Hey! We both like Cheerios, let’s be friend!” so they create similarity through imitation.


  • Toddlers miss their friends when they are gone
    • Common wisdom suggests that when a toddler’s friend moves away he simply forgets about the friend and moves on, but my research, and our experiences here at SEEC, suggest something very different. Years of careful observation of toddler friends showed that they actually went through a grieving process when a friend moved to another town or just to another classroom in an early childhood setting.We observed behaviors such as regression back to diapers, changes in behavior in the classroom and at home, and a general sadness when a friend left. At SEEC we have seen several children leave our school to move to other states or even other countries and we know that our children here still talk about those children and those children still talk about their SEEC friends. We even have children Skype with their old friends once they have moved!
  • Toddlers vary in how they interact with others
    • While some toddlers are outgoing and make friends easily, others are more quiet and tend to need to watch others before they make a friend. Parents and teachers often worry if a child is shy and hangs back, but our research found that these children were just as likely to make friends, they just made them more slowly and more deliberately. Once they were ready the children who hung back and watched often formed their friendships more quickly as they had watched the other children and knew exactly how and what to imitate to get into the action!
  • Toddler friendships should be respected and honored
    • Perhaps the most important lesson I learned through this research was that toddler friendships deserve the same amount of attention and respect that the friendships of older children and adults get. A toddler’s friends are just as important to him as your friends are to you and they deserve the same amount of care. Let friends sit together in the classroom, let them make choices to play on their own, and honor the emotional connection that they have.


Regardless of your age, friends are an important part of life. Encourage and support children as they make friends and talk to them about what it means to be a good friend from the earliest ages. These are the lessons that will last a lifetime and that will make for a happy and fulfilling life.