'Friendship cups' solved my kids' biggest social drama in 3 minutes. Here's how.'

One of the most common social problems in primary-aged kids just got a lot easier to solve. All you need is four cups.

Lately we're being bombarded by non-stop play. It's like the kids in our street think our yard is the local park. While this is lovely and gets them off screens, climbing trees with their mates and jumping on the trampoline instead, it's made me aware of a friendship drama. The, "I don't want to play with you anymore" one. Common amongst this age group.

Sure, there can be lots of reasons why a kid says this to another. Like maybe they want to be the leader for a change or to play something else. But, as I've recently discovered, it can also be because they're a little 'peopled out'.

Just like when us adults bail on after work drinks because we've had enough chatter for the day, kids also crave social downtime.

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I've seen this lately when my eight-year-old wanders off to his room to be alone, only to be followed by a kid who doesn't get the hint, or my neurodivergent 10-year-old has an angry outburst because he feels overwhelmed by the noise and chaos.


When this happens, feelings are being hurt.

So, "Go away, you're annoying me" or blatant ignoring resulting in tears and reports of someone "Being mean" are what's happening.

As much as I'm all for kids sorting things out between themselves, I realised I needed mine to understand different social limits, in order to be kinder. So I came up with this fun hack, which my psychologist friend thought was a great idea.

The play cup experiment.

1. Place four cups on a table outside (including a small, medium, large and a supersized one), along with two jugs of water (I used milk bottles from the recycling!). Get your kids (and their friends if they're over), to stand around it.

2. Ask one child to fill the cups with water. As they do, explain how each represents their different 'play thirst'. That is how much play they want. For some kids this is a little bit, with a lot of quiet downtime (small play cup). For others they enjoy playing but also building lego or watching telly on their own (medium play cup). Others like more play than alone time but still want a little (large play cup). Then other kids have a giant play thirst which can never be quenched (supersized cup)!

Image: Supplied.

3. Next, ask the kids to think about which play cup they might be (they don’t need to say). Ask another kid to pour more water in the already-full cups. As they overflow explain this is 'play overwhelm'. The kid's play cup is full and now it's spilling over. He/she has had enough and needs a break.

4. Pour the giant cup of water out and refill it with the second jug. When it overflows, tell the kids to quickly pour it out and fill it again, explaining that this cup is like one of those theme park refill cups. This kid never wants to be alone or needs a play break.

So now they understand different social limits - some of us enjoy a lot of socialising, others a medium amount and others need more time out.

Image: Supplied.

Next, talk about what happens when our play cups are full and overflowing and how this can make us feel and act. What does being overwhelmed look like for them?

Explain that rather than telling our friends they're being 'annoying' or to 'go away' it is much nicer to simply say, "I need a play break".

Next, ask the kids to suggest ideas for what to do when a friend says this to them (for example, they could play again later, find another friend who wants to play or play on the street for a while).


Our neighbourhood kids loved this little social experiment so much. One recognised he was the "supersized play cup" but also that his friends aren't all like him.

As for my kids, they no longer walk away from friends when they're feeling a bit over it or have an exasperated outburst. My little guy proudly told me the other day, "Mum, I did the trick and told him my play cup was full and it worked! He said, "OK" and ran over to Levi's house. I'll go over there soon too, but right now I'm gonna chill and draw a Stormtrooper."

I recently told my friend, Clinical Psychologist Dr Puneet Singh about the experiment. Here's what she thought:

"It allows the child who is saying that they've had enough to express their needs to the other party in a kind way."

Dr Singh also felt this can help children from "worrying or ruminating about whether they've done anything wrong."

"It's just a clear statement about boundaries. They've had enough play so let's have a break and then later on when we're both ready we can play again. That creates a healthy relationship with good boundaries and good communication," she says.

So there you have it. Understanding differences in ourselves and others is always a positive thing. It's what enables us to figure out relationships and why we sometimes butt heads. But when it comes to kids and navigating their friendships, I found four little cups help.

Feature Image: Supplied. 

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