Everyone needs friends. As adults our friends help to celebrate birthdays and support us when we have a bad day at work. As children, friends and relationships with peers are monumentally important for the development of self-identity, confidence, emotional intelligence, social skills, sharing skills,etc. But what about babies? Do babies need friends? Turns out they do!
A great article in Early Childhood Research & Practice talks about the importance of relationship building in infancy and toddler years. This particular article provides descriptive analyses of one laboratory child care setting in which infants and toddlers were in open classroom settings and allowed to interact with each other. While this doesn’t statistically test the importance of friendships in early infancy years, it does provide evidence for the success of peer-to-peer interaction even during very early years.
The authors of this study observed a childcare setting of children focusing primarily on the children in the infant and toddler classrooms. The researchers changed the classroom environments so that the children in the infant and toddler classrooms were in one large room that was separated by transparent barriers so that infants and toddlers could interact. They also encouraged teachers to help the infants and toddlers interact by bringing non-mobile infants into the toddler classroom for lunch and other activities.
The major findings were as follows:
Environment: Creating a space where infants and toddlers could see and interact with each other as well as time in which they were all together was crucial for interaction and relationship development.
Toys: Toddlers were particularly interested in interacting and playing with the infant toys, so infant toys and and play space was shared with toddlers. Also adding additional dolls to the toddler playroom allowed toddlers to practice caregiving behaviors that they saw the teachers exhibit toward the infants.
Modeling: Toddlers wanted to be involved in the care-taking of the younger children. Toddlers would watch as an adult changed a baby’s diaper or help to read a story to a younger child.
Joint Experiences: Toddlers and infants were provided with activities that they could do together, like finger painting or sand play. These activities allowed the toddlers and infants to interact and play together at an appropriate developmental level for each child.
Spontaneous Interactions: Toddlers and infants benefited from these interactions. Over time the infants began to model behaviors they saw demonstrated by the toddlers, like washing their hands before lunch. Toddlers adapted their interactions to the appropriate developmental level of the infants and would bring and share toys with the younger children without being prompted.
Infants and toddlers enjoy friendships and forming relationships. Even though infants and toddlers are still learning how to control their bodies and emotions, being around other children, even children of different ages can be beneficial for social emotional development and relationship building.
Future research should continue to examine the specifics of infant and toddler friendships and the ways in which they may positively influence development.
McGaha, C. G., Cummings, R., Lippard, B., & Dallas, K. (2011). Relationship building: Infants, toddlers, and 2-year-olds. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 13, 1.