Educators in early education and school age care often utilize the word “friends” to describe an entire class or group of children. Last week on the NAEYC Hello Forum a discussion developed about employing the term friends and if by applying this term to a group of children are educators implying that all of the children in a classroom are or must be friends. Joining in on the conversation I shared this response.

“In my school age care experience, educators refer to the children by name. When gathering as a group and employing a word to describe all of the people present we use the term "everyone" "everybody" "all of us" some type of generic term. If an educator uses the term "friends" this is an acknowledgement to the children that friends are the people they have chosen as companions by connections the children have formed based on meaning and criteria that is important to the child. The educators are not saying everyone is a friend, even though all children and educators are part of a learning community where all people treat each other with respect and care. In our learning community the term “friends” as a definition are the people the children look to as a companion or collaborator. The depth of friendships varies depending on how the relationship has developed. Everyone in the learning community has the potential to be a friend, but the child decides who is in their relationship circle and who is a “friend.”

After being involved in the discussion I thought more about what friendship means in our learning community.

All persons in the learning community have the potential to be a friend. Children learn about friendship from a young age as they move away from parallel play and into more complex play situations. Friendship is learning about another person, sharing ideas, engaging in compromise, and forming agreements. Children learn and discover what the journey of forming friendships feels like. An adult pronouncing that all persons in our learning community are friends does not ring true to a child who knows what the experience of forming friendships entails and observes adults interact with the world where everyone is not a friend. 

Children have the right to choose their own work and the people children call friend is also their choice. Children have their own feelings and opinions about others and develop their own criteria for choosing the persons they want to spend time with. 

Does having choice imply the children can treat others in the learning community any way they wish? 

The children and educators work together to create agreements for how members of the learning community treat each other, friend or not. The agreements are the guidepost for living in community. Our role as educators is to engage in discussion with the children if they are struggling with honoring the community agreements, but learning about working in community is different than being friends with everyone. 

Another role we accept as educators is to assist children in making connections, forming and maintaining friendships by our choices in environmental design. Spaces and provocations that encourage small group work are more advantageous in forming human connections because this type of work environment invites dialogue. The opportunity for children to work in small groups invites practice in social skills and increases the depth of connections between the children. 

Each learning community is unique and creates agreements that fit the culture of the people within. The children in your care also have their own beliefs and form friendships and connections with others based on their own criteria. Our role as educators is to be genuine and respect the learning journey of the child, a journey that includes discovering who to call friend.

What is the word employed in your learning community when referring to the entire group of children? 

What does the word “friend” mean to the children and the educators in your learning community?