Cincinnati Family Magazine

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May 25, 2024

Playground Politics


Julie said she’s not my friend!” exclaims my 4-year-old daughter. “And I don’t like her,” she adds. Instantly defensive, I imagine a catty little preschooler forming cliques of the girls she deems “cool” enough and viciously controlling the class with her gossip and favoritism. In reality, I wind up hosting a play date with the adorable, hilarious Julie not two weeks later, and the girls have since attended one another’s birthday parties because they can’t seem to get enough of each other.

What’s going on here? It’s a simple matter of playground politics; children learning to navigate the sometimes choppy waters of friendships and relationships. Since most adults will admit that they still make social gaffes when it comes to co-workers, neighbors and friends, imagine what it’s like for children who lack the verbal skills to seamlessly join a conversation, the grace to accept a compliment or the self-esteem to brush off an unkind remark.

It can be rocky at times, but most kids grasp the social nuances that serve them throughout their life. An insider’s look at recess periods at a preschool, grade school and middle school offers a glimpse into the sometimes complex lives our kids experience at school.

Preschool: Choosing Play Dough Over Play Mates

Tina Locke, preschool teacher and co-owner of Step Forward Day School located in Franklin, describes a typical day on the playground: “The swings, slides and riding toys are usually full with a mixture of boys and girls, without respect to ‘best friends.’ You might have a group of boys playing with balls and a group of girls sitting and digging or playing with small toys.

If you clap your hands and yell ‘switch,’ you can blink, and groups will reconfigure and move to another activity. Most classes have at least one child who finds himself alone more often than the rest. These children often enjoy the role of observer,” Locke says.

Although parents tend to choose playmates for young children based upon the age and gender of other kids in the neighborhood, preschoolers are more passionate about choosing an activity than they are about choosing a friend to join them. Locke says, “Most of the centers like dress-up or art are co-ed. It’s my experience that if given the chance to play with a particular friend or choose an activity, the activity wins.”

She says that even children as young as 2 have groups of preferred playmates and migrate toward kids with similar interests and personalities. Unlike older children who may choose friends based on outward appearance, stylish clothing or possessions, “preschoolers want to hang with children who want to do the same things they enjoy.” She goes on to say that most little kids make friends easily and will have many “best friends” throughout the year.

A young child’s ability to forgive slights and quickly make new friends is a wonderful thing, but there are still a few socially awkward kids hanging on the periphery of the playground who become labeled for their lack of communication prowess.

“By 4 or 5, children know who can’t speak clearly, who can’t listen appropriately during story time, who hits and pushes,” Locke says. Other “loners” may be only children who aren’t yet used to interacting with multiple kids, while some students simply possess quiet personalities and prefer to observe the action from the sidelines rather than jump in the middle of a crowd.

By preK or kindergarten, leaders start emerging – usually a handful of kids with “tons of self confidence and good communication skills,” says Locke. At this age, girls start forming smaller, more exclusive groups of friends or cliques and get their feelings hurt when their perceived “best friend” plays with someone else. Luckily for mothers of boys, they’re not quite there yet. “Boys at this age are easier,” Locke asserts. “They play with the kids playing what they want to play.” Grammar school, however, is a whole new world …

Grammar School: Cooties and Kickball

Kenneth A. Dodge, Ph.D., professor of public policy and psychology at Duke University and director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, paints a verbal picture of a normal day during recess at grammar school: “A large group of boys are playing a game of kickball. Several leaders are establishing teams, and others are going along. A few boys are watching from the periphery. The girls are in smaller clusters of twos and threes. The girls are less likely to be running around. They are talking a lot more.”

Elementary school children suddenly become picky about friends. Translation: Girls have cooties, and boys are gross. “Opposite gender disdain is strongest during the late elementary school years (grades three and four),” Dodge explains. Even kids who have a best friend of the opposite sex in their neighborhood will often alter their behavior at school and only sit with girls at the lunch table or stick to sports on the playground. Fortunately, in communities where large numbers of girls play sports, the genders may co-mingle in a game of soccer during recess, and by the fifth grade, some of the more mature kids start hanging around the opposite gender to satisfy their budding romantic curiosity.

Some things don’t change with age: just like in preschool, a lack of social skills equates to a lack of friends. Dodge says that kids who “have not learned how to enter groups and negotiate conflicts” are the ones who get excluded. Boys tend to have a harder time with these skills, but if they can play sports well, fourth grade teacher Carla Puckett says, their poor communication skills will be ignored on the ball field.

“On average, girls score better on tests of social competence and skills than boys do,” according to Dodge, “but some girls are indeed inept and awkward.” Those girls are usually found reading instead of chatting in groups with the others. Sadly, kids who don’t fit in often misbehave or cause conflicts in a misguided attempt for any kind of attention, which just aggravates the problem and solidifies their label as outcasts and troublemakers.

On the other hand, the same qualities that make a leader at age 3 are found in the most popular 10-year-olds, too: self confidence, good communication skills, assertiveness and a good sense of humor. By 10, size in boys and style in girls play an important role in popularity, too. Dodge says, “Athletic ability and size make a difference” as early as the first grade. Puckett agrees, “The boys who are best at sports are the most popular in the classroom, and the boys who are into books are pretty much loners.”

By the fourth grade, girls begin to place value on looks and fashion, while boys “lag behind in the attention to clothes and attractiveness,” according to Dodge. The most popular kids tend to possess a mixture of all those traits. Puckett describes the “Queen Bee” in her classroom as “very outgoing, well-rounded, athletic, cute as a button and smart in school – she has it all.”

Middle School: Chicks in Cliques and Dudes with ‘Tudes

The good news about middle school is that larger mixed-gender crowds start to appear on the playground because the yucky factor regarding the opposite sex goes away … in fact the opposite sex starts looking pretty interesting at this age. The bad news is that the small all-girl or all-boy cliques that remain are more exclusive and hierarchical than ever.

Jessica Giles, Ph.D., and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College says, “Girls are more relationally focused – talking about friendships and who likes who. You start seeing alpha girls (the most popular ones) putting a lot of energy into making their way up the pecking order.”

Some of the ways girls gain status among their peers is by making friends with a queen bee, by gossiping about other girls or even by possessing material wealth like expensive clothes or fancy braces. Interestingly, though, while a girl can quickly rise to power through money, gossip and rumors, the most popular middle school girls are those Giles describes as “assertive and confident with something interesting to share like sports, music or art.”

She goes on to say that those qualities, “may not make you homecoming queen, but they’ll give you solid lasting friendships – girls want that kind of trust and intimacy.”

Outward appearance in the form of clothes and haircuts isn’t as important for boys, but muscular development and physical prowess displayed in basketball, football and skateboarding certainly are. Smaller boys still have a chance though, if they’re exceptionally funny and quick-witted.

The wiry wisecracker won’t rise to the top of the heap, but he will definitely be included in the popular gangs because he provides comic relief without physically threatening to topple the alpha male. Giles says, “Adolescents are very sensitive to hypocrisy and are constantly questioning the status quo, so if someone can use that to their advantage by exposing adults as hypocrites or buffoons, it may be attractive to their peers.”

If it seems like your child is consumed with being part of the cool group, rest assured that you haven’t lost all your influence. “Adolescents look to their peers for what to wear, hair, make-up and what music to listen to, but they tend to go to their parents for politics, religion and values,” explains Giles. And it’s those values that ultimately help get them through the competitive middle school years.

Put it in Perspective

Experts say that the majority of children gravitate toward students who share their interests and that most kids make solid friends – many who will last a lifetime. Even the kids who don’t seem to fit in anywhere one year usually find a niche the next when the class composition changes.

As tempting as it is to try to fix hurt feelings or actively encourage friendships with children you think are appropriate playmates, even the smallest kids need to manage playground politics by themselves. Part of their emerging self identity depends upon learning these important social skills that they will continue to develop and hone throughout their lives. Locke waxes poetic when she says: “I see play as the truest form of who a child is at any given time.

It’s through play that children work out all these roles and feelings. As adults, we need to be observers. We need to be there to bandage the skinned knee and soothe the wounded spirit but we shouldn’t try to remove all the dangers, nor should we try to help our children avoid all the pitfalls of their relationships. It’s a tough world out there, and children learn to cope by practicing all these things during their opportunities to just “go play.”

Deborah Bohn is a mother and writer residing in Williamson County.


  • Teach them how to pick up on social cues
  • Help them to develop empathy
  • Don’t allow mean behavior
  • Take action to help patch up problems
  • Let children choose their own friends

Source: Parenting By Heart by Ron Taffel, Ph.D. (Perseus; $15)

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