“He often plays alone,” my son’s teacher said in that soft, calm voice reserved for those who teach preschool. I shifted, trying to get comfortable in a tiny chair at a tiny table built for 4-year-olds. “But I’m not surprised,” the other teacher chimed in. “He’s so imaginative and creative that his make-believe stories far surpass those of his classmates.” She paused, and then, as if sensing I needed reassurance, she added, “If I were him, I’d play alone, too. The other students’ ideas are boring compared to his.” In retrospect, I should’ve kept those words, and framed them.
Almost exactly two years later, this topic reemerged, but this time it was different.
At the beginning of last winter I received a phone call from the school psychologist about my first-grader, and there weren’t any reassurances this time. “We [she, the teacher and the lunch monitors] are concerned that he regularly plays alone during recess,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “By 6 years old he should regularly play with his friends. Instead, he wanders around the playground or sits on the swings and sings out loud … to himself.”
That talk spurred questions and conversations with and about my son that lasted for several months. Had I held on to those words from his preschool teachers and shared them with his current school, things might have been different.
I was caught off guard by the conversation, in part because at home or when we’re out, my son rarely stops talking. I should have a “beware of chatty boy” sign on my front door — anyone who rings our doorbell gets to hear all about his latest interests. Right now it’s Greek gods. So when I was told he played alone, I wondered if they had the right child, and, if so, was it really a problem at his age?
They did have the right child and the answer to the latter question is maybe, maybe not.
“Teachers and mental health professionals will begin to be concerned if a child is playing alone around age 6, in first grade,” says Jennifer Pritt, a child and adolescent psychologist in Mount Kisco, N.Y. “This is the age where teachers may begin to notice, but the first thing they should ask themselves is whether this is a concern. If the child is isolating himself and doesn’t play with anyone, and if he’s not participating in group activities in the classroom, then there is cause for concern.”
Okay, so the timing was right, but was there really cause for concern? He would join others on the slide or in a game from time to time. And he was an active participant in the classroom — in fact, sometimes he was a bit too active. But the school staff was concerned that he regularly played alone at recess, so I listened.
We began talking about play at the family dinner table. I often asked my son about recess, and if he played with anyone that day. We never punished him for playing alone, but we encouraged him to approach children or groups and ask to play if no one approached him first. We’d sometimes engage in role playing or have a deeper discussion about how to interact with other children. Whatever the professionals suggested, I did.
At the same time, I began to pay closer attention to how my son interacted with others. I noticed he was calm and confident in conversations with older children and adults. Often, he approached them. His dry wit made them laugh. His knowledge allowed for easy back-and-forth banter. His playfulness put them at ease. Yet with children his own age, he complained that their interests were “boring” or “stupid,” and often conversations were brief, as he’d quickly wander off to do something else alone. I wondered how he would ever learn to play with his classmates at recess when they seemed so different.
Pritt says that children who are more intelligent or don’t fit the mold of a “typical” kid may lack the desire to play with others their age. She also mentioned that most boys my son’s age enjoy playing soccer and video games. I laughed, because my son would rather write scripts and make movies.
“There’s this belief that every kid should have the same interests and like the same things as every other kid their age,” Pritt says. “But the reality is that not every kid enjoys the same things, and that’s okay. Personalities will be different and interests will also be different.”
My son also has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which hinders his social skills. It’s a challenge for him to remain focused long enough to pick up social cues; he can be impulsive and interrupt; and he finds it difficult to relate to others who have different interests.
This, Pritt says, further hinders playground success. “For children who have trouble reading social cues, they may find it easier not to play with others. … ” But even when you know your child’s preferences, strengths and weaknesses, it can still take time to come to the right conclusions when the school professionals are telling you there’s a problem.
I recently spoke with a mom who spent her son’s first-, second- and third-grade years worrying about him playing alone at recess. She dedicated hours to creating solutions. Her dinner table conversations were similar to mine, with her coaching him on how to talk to other kids on the playground. He’d simply say he was fine, but the school said he wasn’t, so her stress continued to increase. Finally, after three years, she asked him if he minded playing alone at recess. The answer was no.
His response changed everything. She had assumed that he was lonely, but she was wrong. In fact, he enjoyed the time alone and viewed it as a quiet opportunity to reset himself for the remainder of the school day. And, like my son, he didn’t like most of the games the other children played.
“It’s very important to ask your child if he or she is happy playing by themselves,” Pritt says. “If the answer is yes, then let it go and watch your child. There’s a lot of merit to playing alone — it’s actually a good thing to enjoy playing by yourself, even if society doesn’t think it’s the norm.”
But Pritt advises parents to continue to monitor the child. “You know your child better than anyone,” she says. “You know when your child is happy and content. Observe how they seem versus what they say. Are they happy to go to school or do they seem lost or upset? If your child is unhappy, then it’s time to get help from a psychologist.”
Luckily, it only took me months, not years, to learn that my son enjoyed singing to himself on the swings. And, when he did play with others, it was because he wanted to, not because he was told to. With that knowledge, I stopped worrying because I believed he’d be okay. I also changed our dinner conversations. We now discuss writing, filmmaking, politics and, of course, Greek gods.
A few days after he began second grade this fall, my son handed me a flier for the Cub Scouts, and asked to join. “All of my friends are doing it,” he told me. Then he rattled off a list of names: His friends.
Gia Miller is a freelance writer in Katonah, N.Y. Find her on Twitter @GiaMiller79.