Preston Walker and Andrew Dinh became friends as easily as children have always found pals: on a school playground, in a game of four square. Now both 10, the boys play chess at recess or split a pepperoni and mustard sandwich at lunch at Adam Elementary in Houston. On weekends, they might play rounds of video games like "Duke Nukem" or try something new -- like the time they blew up their fast-food toys.
But in 21st century America, such childhood friendships have become difficult to make and maintain, according to parents, school counselors and child therapists. Children, they say, don't have the same amount of time and opportunities to make and keep friends as kids in generations past.
Once, all a child needed to do to make friends was run out the front door and join in a neighborhood game of kickball or hide-and-seek. Kids often attended the same school and their parents may have been friends or at least talked over the fence.
But the increase of two-working-parent families, from 47 percent of all families in 1969 to 72 percent in 1998, longer work days, and more options for extracurricular activities leave less time for young friendships to form. Psychologist Fred Frankel of the University of California even points to architectural trends -- such as moving porches from the front of the house to the back -- as a reason children and families have fewer chances to socialize today.
When friendships are formed, they're often made through specific parental efforts and formal steps. Parents arrange "play dates" and join "play groups" for their children. Schools teach friendship skills in the classroom and review those skills in evening meetings with parents to further encourage good social skills.
It's not that children born today are less likely to grasp friend-making skills than their parents. They simply have less opportunities to make friends.
Take Preston and Andrew. The boys must negotiate time to play amid after-school tutoring sessions and art classes as well as their parents' busy work schedules. The boys live only a couple of blocks apart but need parental permission and supervision to visit each other.
Anjali Pinjala, a licensed professional counselor in Houston, says it takes extra effort and time for parents to get to know the families of their children's friends. Sometimes, making the first phone call can feel awkward.
"It's almost like a cold call," Pinjala said. "Calling them up and starting a conversation takes some skills and a lot of parents don't have that so they err on the side of neglect."
Other times, parents and children have no control over broken friendships, such as when families move to another city or state, as more than 2.2 million American families did between 1998 and 1999, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Such moves are especially difficult for girls, says Frankel, who notes girls tend to form more exclusive friendships than boys, who gravitate toward group activities and play.
April Tillman's two closest friends moved away and changed schools during the past year. She misses her friends but is also assertive about finding new ones.
"You have to look," the fifth-grader says. "You can't just wait for them to come to your door and say 'Hi.'" April offered a piece of candy and struck up a conversation with Monica Longoria in their class at Adam Elementary at the beginning of the school year. They're now best friends.
Still, maintaining the friendship requires that the girls' parents drive them to each other's homes because they don't live within walking distance.
Child experts also note that children are choosing solo forms of amusement such as computer and video games or the old standby -- television. They're also more likely to attend a structured athletic or artistic activity after school that teaches them new skills, though not much about friendship. Even group activities such as Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts aren't strong enough on their own to help children build important social skills, says Frankel, author of "Good Friends are Hard to Find."
Research shows that best friends, not parents, teachers, or organized groups have the most influence on social skills, Frankel said.
In his book, Frankel emphasizes the importance of making play dates for children.
"If you don't schedule it (a play date), it isn't going to happen, and if it doesn't happen, you can forget about close friendships," says Frankel, who notes moms, not psychologists, invented and popularized play dates.
More often, such formal and extra measures are needed for children to form close friendships.
School guidance counselors and teachers are also spending more time teaching social skills in private office sessions and in the classroom. Several books, such as Frankel's, cover the topic. Others, like "How Kids Make Friends," by Lonnie Michelle, are written for children themselves.