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Kids Are Finding It Harder to Make Friends These Days

Posted in ChicagoNow, August 18, 2014 (Cartoon by Marcia Liss)

It’s National Friendship Week and I am wondering: Why is it harder for kids to make BFFs these days. I confess I have no scientific proof that this is true. It’s just my observation. And I have a few thoughts about why it may be so.

Where do kids meet other kids? Well, kids can find friends through their parents’ friends’ kids. This can result in a lovely BFF relationship, but it can also lead to the loss of a parent’s BFF. It works when they are little and don’t have the words to say, “I don’t want to play with him.” Sometimes, it works forever.

If kids are lucky, they live in a neighborhood with other children. But even then, those other kids are busy with summer camp and after school activities or childcare. Where one of my daughters lives, the block is teeming with kids, but they are not always around.

When they are, it’s great. It takes me back to my childhood in Detroit when we were instructed to change into our play clothes after school and, well, go out and play. No one had anything else to do. We mostly ran around and dug a huge hole in our backyard dubbed “the far distance.”

This laissez faire approach to childhood has vanished. Most kids don’t even live in child-filled neighborhoods where they can play freely. Play is pretty structured these days – soccer team, swim lessons, dance classes…there’s a class for pretty much anything expect imaginative, unscripted play.

So, the primary place for kids to meet other kids these days is at school. That makes sense, but we all know kids need a chance to interact to makes friends, let alone BFFs. And we also know that elementary school these days (and sadly sometimes preschool) is mostly sitting and listening and following directions. Even lunch is not all that social. At one of my grandkids’ schools, the lunch “teachers” tell them to refrain from talking. My granddaughter claims she can “murmur” to the person next to her and not get in trouble, but there’s not much opportunity for socializing. Also, there’s no talking in the halls. So, actual free play is relegated to recess, which may or may not happen depending on the school’s curriculum and the weather.

At Cherry Preschool, where I was Founding Director, we placed a high premium on play. The children were encouraged to choose their own activities and stretch their imaginations. In the winter, we replaced the indoor gym toys with huge boxes and let their ideas soar. It was there my granddaughter claimed she had real BFFs. This happened when she was in her pre-kindergarten year, as younger kids are not developmentally ready for stabile friendships. But in that last year of preschool, the “Lava Girls” played countless games and went on exciting and creative adventures.

I think she expected more of the same when she started elementary school, but there were so few opportunities, especially after kindergarten, to play freely with others. She made lots of friends, but by age six was lamenting the absence of a BFF. As she explained it, there just is never enough time to figure out a game with someone at recess, and that’s the only time it can really happen.

I’m wondering as we enter National Friendship Week, if the nature of friendship has changed for kids. Will they have to wait until they are old enough to have their own social media page to find that BFF? I guess if there isn’t much opportunity for in person interaction, they may have to do it virtually. It makes me feel kind of sad.

The rule at Cherry Preschool, borrowed from a book by Vivian Paley of the same name, is, “You can’t say you can’t play.” Its intention is to promote inclusion of all children in classroom free play opportunities. I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t another layer of meaning to that phrase, aimed at the rule-makers in our schools these days: You can’t say you can’t play… to kids. That’s the only way children will learn the social skills needed to make BFFs and get along with their peers.

Taking an unscientific poll: Is your child’s school making it hard to form meaningful friendships?


by Laurie Levy
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