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Is It Normal To Have Cliques in Preschool?

By Dr. Lisa Hunter Romanelli, Child Psychologist

Question:

My daughter already seems to be forming a clique with two of her girlfriends at preschool. Every day, they seek each other out, and they play with each other almost exclusively. They don't shun other kids, but they also don't invite them to play along. She plays with other kids just fine at home, at the park and on individual play dates. But at preschool she only seeks out her two girlfriends. Is this normal? How do I encourage her to play with the other kids?

Answer:

It is not usual for preschool children to prefer playing with some of their peers rather than others. Just like older children and adults, young children tend to develop friendships based on similarities. That is, they seek out friends who are like them in salient ways. Preschool children are learning how to be friends. Learning to be a friend with one or two children is easier than learning to be friends with everyone. Once a child has learned to be a friend she can transfer this knowledge to all children. In the preschool world children are learning and figuring out how to manage the world in their own ways.

It is understandable that you would like your daughter to expand her circle of friends in school and there are several things you can do to encourage her to play with other children. If you have the opportunity to observe free play time when you drop your daughter off or pick her up, you can point out interesting things the other children are doing and encourage her to join them. For example, "Wow, it looks like Madison and Sophia are having a great time playing in the kitchen! I bet it would be lots of fun for you to play with them." Don't worry if your daughter does not follow your suggestion. Repeatedly making these suggestions will encourage her to play with other children. Asking your daughter about other children in her class will also encourage her to interact more with her peers. Try to ask questions that will require your daughter to talk with peers. For example, "What is Tom's favorite snack?" Of course, she probably will not know the answer to this question if she doesn't play or talk with Tom, so you can "challenge" her to find out the next day.

Your daughter's teacher can also help her play with other children. Some ways of doing this include:

  • Grouping your daughter with different children during small group activities.
  • Assigning your daughter a "buddy" that she does not typically play with to complete a special "assignment" (e.g., handing out snack).
  • Making suggestions about fun things to do with different children during free play.

Your daughter's teacher may already do some of these things. If she does not, talking to her about your concerns and making some suggestions may be helpful.

The fact that your daughter has two close friends in preschool, does not shun other children and plays well with others outside of school suggests her social development is that of a typical young child. Encouraging her to expand her circle of friends in preschool is worthwhile, but it is important to do so in a gentle way that respects her right to choose who she likes to play with.

Dr. Lisa Hunter Romanelli is the Director of Programs at the Resource for Advancing Children's Health (REACH) Institute, a nonprofit organization based in New York City. Hunter is also a voluntary faculty member in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Columbia University and a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City, specializing in cognitive behavioral treatment for children and adolescents.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.