BEFORE I COULD FINish saying, "Let's get ready to go outdoors," the children had scooped their sweaters and jackets out of their cubbies. "Donna make a fort," "... can ride bikes," "... go on the swings," they called out. The children all seemed eager to get outside - all, that is, except Mary Lou. Her eyes were brimming with tears. I squatted to reassure the little girl face to face. "I will stay with you, Mary Lou," I said, hoping to quell her recent fearfulness of outdoor play.
When the then three-and-a-half-year-old enrolled in our program last fall, she wasn't unduly cautious in the classroom or outside for a young child who had just entered a new preschool. She enjoyed our predictable routines and clear expectations. As the weeks went by, Mary Lou made good friends and participated more and more eagerly. But then the family moved away for a few months.
Recently they returned to the area, and Mary Lou is back with us. We have noticed that she has changed in one important way: Mary Lou seems fearful of outdoor play. Most of our children are delighted to be outdoors in March. They run and shout. Child-propelled vehicles go clanging by, and sometimes some of the boys become a bit too boisterous. The noise level seems to particularly bother Mary Lou. We have always allowed this exuberance as long as everyone was comfortable and safe. But I'm not so sure that's the case this year. While others may enjoy the release of pentup energy, Mary Lou begs to stay indoors. If only I understood why, I might be able to help.
The Parent's Story
MY JOB IN SALES requires frequent moves, including two since last fall. Fortunately, my husband isn't affected by this, since he telecommutes. But I've worried about the effect of all these changes on our daughter, Mary Lou. Changing her school and baby-sitter each time isn't so easy, even this time when we returned to a familiar place. I keep telling myself that things could be worse. At least the three of us are together, and we haven't had to leave extended family behind since our family members live all over the country. As a matter-of-fact, an aunt, an uncle, and one set of Mary Lou's grandparents live close to us now. These connections are wonderful for my husband and me, but I'm not sure they have helped Mary Lou. She still speaks about wanting to return to our last house: "Bingo wants me to come back," she sometimes pleads, referring to a former neighbor's beagle puppy.
Until today, though, I thought she liked being back at her old school. Now I've heard from her teacher that Mary Lou has become afraid of playing outside. When she does, she insists on taking favorite toys along, for fear of never seeing them again. Mary Lou says she's scared of getting hurt because many children are noisy and wild. Hearing this reminded me of how upset she had been when moving men carried her furniture and toys to the truck during our last move. I guess our efforts to cheer up our daughter haven't been successful. She had been such an exuberant child. What can I do to help her feel safe whether she's indoors or out?
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
Moving can certainly be stressful for young children, and it's more challenging if there are multiple moves requiring frequent changes in schools, baby-sitters, neighbors, and available family members. Mary Lou probably feels unsettled and powerless, too, since she has had no vote in these decisions.
What the Teaches Can Do
Hopefully, the teacher has already arranged a parent-teacher get-together. It's essential that they talk so the teacher will have a better understanding of the problem's origins and be sensitive to the way Mary Lou expresses her feelings of loss and powerlessness through play. The teacher may be able to guide the little girl's play gently so she can, eventually, master these feelings. Until the child is comfortable being outside for long periods, the teacher should enlist an adult to stay indoors with Mary Lou during at least part of the playground periods.
Mary Lou's teacher can cordon off an area that will be out of bounds for rougher play and the noisy confusion that is apparently overloading Mary Lou. She can bring art materials and dramatic-play props to that safe place. Soon this area is likely to become a magnet for others seeking some less boisterous outdoor-play time.
What the Parents Can Do
For a while, if at all possible, one parent or relative might be at school during outdoor play. The parents should allow Mary Lou to make decisions about such things as what to wear, which fruit or cereal to eat, what game to play, and which friend to invite over for a play date-again, so she feels in charge. At every opportunity, they should recognize her new accomplishments, such as getting dressed.
Last, but not least, the parents have a lot of soul searching to do about how they might avoid frequent moves in the future. Happily for their children and for them, more and more people are concluding that comfortable career decisions must take such vital family matters into account.