Kent has been here for several months, yet he still prefers to play alone. Today was a typical day for the 3A-year-old. After giving me a brief smile as I greeted him at the door, he headed for his favorite spot in the block corner where he played happily, building a parking garage for the small cars he brought to school. He would have gone on happily amusing himself in this way if I hadn't encouraged his friend, Jeremy, to join him. Kent gave Jeremy a restrained greeting, but soon the two boys began chatting about adding floors to the block garage. However, as soon as several other children sat down to play with Kent and Jeremy, Kent picked up his cars and left the group.
Earlier in the year, I assumed this behavior of Kent's was a sign of some hesitance about separating. Then I realized that he avoided group activities whether his mom was close by or not. He's been particularly ill at ease during outdoor play. Today, after seeing him shrink away when a group of children buzzed by him on their tricycles, I decided it was time to talk with his parents. Maybe together, we can figure out how to help Kent.
The Parents Story
Kent has been telling me how much he likes school. His best friend seems to be a classmate named Lucas who lives in our neighborhood. The two boys like to ride their trikes in the driveway and rake leaves. Kent is pleased when he is invited to have lunch at Lucas's house, and of course, he often asks if Lucas can come over here. Yesterday was Lucas's birthday. When Kent and I arrived at the party, we saw 15 or 16 children running around having a good time. I recognized most of them from Kent's preschool class and thought the familiar faces would put him at ease. But he took one look and backed away until the party got calmer and more organized. Even then he chose not to join any games, and while everyone else was chattering away at the table, my son sat quietly, taking tiny tastes of the ice cream and cake. I really can't understand his behavior. He's so cheerful and talkative at home or when he plays here alone with Lucas. This afternoon, the same kind of thing happened again. We went to the park where there were many families that we know. And they were playing games that Kent really enjoys! He played all by himself in the sandbox, and stayed there until it was time to go home. I've been wondering if I should talk to his teacher about this behavior. Maybe she's seen some of what I'm talking about. I'm really starting to get concerned that he isn't more sociable.
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
Some children take a long time to warm up to group play. They are often imaginative youngsters who, like Kent, are quite content to amuse themselves. They may be completely at ease with one or two good friends but become overwhelmed by the noise and activity level of a larger group. Children from small families or quiet homes may be particularly sensitive, especially if their natural temperament is on the quiet side.
what the Teacher Can Do
It's clear that Kent feels overwhelmed by the many sensations of being in a group. The sounds, movement, sights, and physical contact may continue to cause him discomfort for a while. Since he needs a very gradual introduction to group play, he should be allowed to play in his safe comer with only one friend at a time for at least a few weeks. Encouraging Jeremy to join him was a good idea. But the teacher should hold off on introducing Kent to large-group experiences until he seems ready. In the meantime, she might divide the class into smaller groups for activities to help Kent feel more comfortable.
What the Parent Can Do
The parent should welcome an invitation to talk when the teacher calls. A great deal can be gained through their collaboration. Hopefully the teacher will help Kent's mom to feel reassured about her son's developing social skills. After all, the 3%-year-old has made a friend and enjoys the companionship, although he will need time and a gradual introduction to the many stimuli involved in large-group play. The parent should continue to encourage the friendship with Lucas-the more time Kent spends with one or two familiar children, the more at ease he will become with others. It's also fine for Kent to play the quiet games he likes best. Not every child likes boisterous outdoor play. But everyone does need a friend and time alone to think and wonder. Kent has both now. With his parents' and teacher's gentle guidance, he is likely to discover that group play is another of life's real pleasures.