Negotiating playground politics

By Christina Gretton, 26 October 2021
Children at St Oliver’s Harris Park Catholic Out of School Hours Care find they can make a wider circle of friends than just those in their year group. Image: Diocese of Parramatta


Natalie Markos Douwaihi has seen children’s friendships in the playground as an educator, at before and after school care, and even as a devoted aunty. She shares some of her learnings about the complex world of children’s friendships.

Natalie is the Service Coordinator at St Oliver’s Harris Park Catholic Out of School Hours Care (COSHC), and has seen many “cliques” in the playground and the children desperately trying to break into them.

Natalie has seen children whose, sometimes unwittingly, inappropriate behaviour drives other children away.

Natalie has also seen children cast aside the “school playground politics” once they are at before or after school care. At St Oliver’s COSHC, children happily play with each other regardless of who they usually play with at school.

At the same time, Natalie has spoken to many parents who have come to her confused and upset when their child doesn’t seem to be able to make friends.

When they are still in the early years of school, Natalie explains, it’s often important for adults to show children how to find things they like in common so they can have fun together.

Natalie sees good friendships really begin to blossom in children around the Year 3 and 4 stage, but then become more complicated in Years 5 and 6 as children approach puberty. At this age personal popularity becomes more important.

Natalie comments that activities away from school, including at COSHC, give children freedom, “It helps the children realise they can be friends with anyone,” she says.

She’s very clear on the need for children to feel empowered to talk about friendship issues with adults, and advises parents to gently prompt discussion about the topic with their children.

“Children need support and advice,” she says. “It’s important that the adults around them are supportive and open, rather than acting as a disciplinarian or judging who’s right and wrong.”

Natalie dismisses the concept that children are “dobbing” when they report a friendship issue to a teacher, and never gets either party into trouble. “I always tell children they are not “dobbing” if they need adult help with a friendship issue. I ask ‘What happened?’ rather than ‘why?’ because it’s easier for them to describe the situation,” she says. “I then give my perspective, and let each side talk it through.”

Natalie’s experience has shown her once children get a chance to explain how they felt about a situation, the issue often clears up.

“We bring things back to Jesus’ example,” she says, about what she might say to children having a fight. “We talk about love, forgiveness, unity and diversity.”

At the end of the day, Natalie advises that even if children have trouble fitting into a particular friendship group, as long as their parents support them, and help them feel ok about it, there are upsides. “I wasn’t particularly popular myself and didn’t stay in the same friendship group,” says Natalie. “It made me more independent,” she says. “I learned how to reach out to others and get on with all different people rather than being with the same people all the time.”

Tips for helping your children make friends

  • Don’t judge who is right and wrong in a friendship quarrel, particularly if a child comes to you for help. You will only create a stigma around “dobbing” in the future rather than adult intervention being seen as helpful.
  • Gently help children find common ground with other children if they are having trouble making friends.
  • Gently and non-judgmentally ask your children about their friendships to show you are interested.
  • Speak to educators at COSHC or other carers if you feel there is a problem as children need equal support at home, school and other care.
  • Be a friend to your child, but also always be their parent.
  • See friendship battles and popularity as part of growing up and becoming independent.

This article was originally featured in the Ordinary Time/Winter 2021 Edition of the Catholic Outlook Magazine.


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