Social & Emotional Development
Developing Relationships with Peers & Adults
Core Finding: SE-REL-C02

Social relationships develop from infancy and can be facilitated through play and adult interaction.


Appropriate and affectionate relationships with loving and consistent caregivers who relate to children through play facilitates children’s developmental milestones.

Findings reveal the importance of social interactions that allow the children to experience behaviours that are associated with contributing to higher levels of coping and resilience, emotional regulation (managing emotions like anxiety or fear), optimistic thinking (which includes feeling some sense of competence and control over one’s life and having the confidence to persevere when faced with difficulty), goal-setting skills and associated behaviours, such as showing initiative, problem solving skills, being resourceful, having a sense of autonomy, self-efficacy and an awareness of one’s strengths.

Researchers have observed that infants' social behaviours closely follow their developing physical and motor skills. Babies as young as 2 months gaze at each other and stick out their chins in focused attention.

Peer interaction occurs in babies as young as 3 to 4 months. Researchers report clear friendship preferences among young infants and toddlers. By six months, infants can communicate with other infants by smiling, touching and babbling. They can also participate in group communication.
  1. Selby, J. M., & Bradley, B. S. (2003). Infants in groups: A paradigm for study of early social experience. Human Development, 46, 197–221. (Level III)
In the second year of life, they show both prosocial and aggressive behaviour with peers, with some toddlers clearly being more aggressive than others.

Relationships with peers and adults can be built through playing with adults and other children, caregiving routines, and group activities such as sharing with another child and other contexts.

Young children benefit greatly from having play partners.

Playing with others enhances their development of social skills, language and learning abilities. For toddlers, having adults as play partners help them develop self-direction, turn-taking, and reciprocity. Free, non-directive play that allows children to take the lead was found to be most effective for developing these skills.
10, 11
  1. Kwon, K.-A., Bingham, G., Lewsader, J., Jeon, H.-J., & Elicker, J. (2013). Structured Task versus Free Play: The Influence of Social Context on Parenting Quality, Toddlers’ Engagement with Parents and Play Behaviours, and Parent-Toddler Language Use. Child & Youth Care Forum, 42(3), 207–224. (Level IV)

  2. Gardner-Neblett, N., Holochwost, S. J., Gallagher, K. C., Iruka, I. U., Odom, S. L., & Pungello, E. P. (2016). Guided versus independent play: Which better sustains attention among infants and toddlers? Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (SREE). (Level III)

Toddlers spend much of their time engaged in exploratory play with toys and other objects as a way of practising routines and learning about the world and how to interact with others.

Young children engage in more social behaviour with familiar friends than those who are less familiar.

Small toys can also serve as a focus for infants' social play. For example, they show and share the toys with each other. Large toys that require some cooperation, such as a rocking boat or climber toy, give children chances to imitate each other's large motor behaviour and practise turn-taking. However, when there are few toys, children spend more time looking, smiling, gesturing, and vocalising to each other.

Varying the number and type of toys available during particular play periods can encourage object play, imitation, and interaction with other children.
  1. Hagens, H. E. (1997). Strategies for encouraging peer interactions in infant/toddler programmes. Early Childhood Education Journal, 25, 147–149. (Level III)

Music also provides a way for children to practise skills that are important for interacting and developing relationships with others. Although making music does not require sharing, a skill most toddlers are still working on, it encourages positive peer interactions. Collaboration though music can form the basis of toddlers' first friendships. Music and finger rhymes also naturally encourages imitation, turn-taking, and self-regulation. These are crucial skills for effective interaction when building relationships with others as children need to learn to follow what is happening in a group, take turns, share toys, and share attention with others.