This 6-year-old likes to be by himself

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  November 3, 2009 06:00 AM

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Barbara, my almost-6-year-old grandson plays by himself at recess. He had one boy he played with before break but since their return he plays by himself again. He is very intelligent but has a great imagination.

Kids say hi to him both coming and going into school. Should we be a little bothered or can we help him interact somehow? He is very nice, not mean or anything, and has a baby brother at home he has to share with, which does present a problem at times. Do you have some advice for us?

Thank You

From, Janeen the Grandma, Lodi

Hi Janeen,

Some children are what we like to call "slow to warm up." (Back in the day, they were called shy). I like the slow-to-warm up description because it covers a range of possibilities, including that they are socially immature, meaning they don't quite yet get the ins and outs of social interaction, or that they are overwhelmed by the noise and stimulation of a particular social scene, like the playground at recess, but do fine in quieter settings. Other possibilities: Your grandson's imagination enables him to have a great time on his own. (That's very different from saying he's living in a world of his own; you'd have other indications for that, including from teachers.)

Does this tendency of his to be by himself at recess make him sad? Is it something he talks about at home? Does he feel left out? Or is it something he doesn't even notice, something that makes you feel sad watching him? These are two very different scenarios.

Have you talked to the teacher? That's the most important single thing you can do because she/he not only observes him every day in various situations but also has a basis of comparison from however many years of teaching. At this point in the school year, nearly three months in, she should be able to tell you if his tendency to be by himself is a problem or not. (Some children find that having a lot of choices during free play is overwhelming; they go back to the same activity day after day because that is a source of comfort.)

Keep in mind that these are not bad tendencies, they are simply tendencies that make your grandson the individual he is. In our society, we place a lot of value on sociability and expect it of our kids from a young age. For many children, it's something they need to grow into. If what's going on with your grandson is more than just needing time to become socially more mature and adept, your teacher can be the starting point.

Definitely ask the teacher if she can play matchmaker: Is there a child in the class, girl or boy, who might enjoy a friendship with your grandson & vice versa. It's possible they are both slow to warm up and just need a little push, including, perhaps, a play date that the parents might arrange.

And let's not forget the baby brother at home. If this tendency to be by himself is something that's new since the baby arrived, that might signal an anxiety or insecurity more than a slow-to-warm-up tendency. Often that can be ameliorated by mom and/or dad setting aside a few minutes each day to spend with him doing something he enjoys and by saying explicitly, "This is our time together. Since the baby came, I've been pretty busy and I want to make sure we still have time together, just you and me." Arrange it so that nothing interrupts this time, not even the cell ringing or the baby crying.

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6 comments so far...
  1. I can understand why you're concerned. None of us wants to see our child or grand child be an outcast. What's the lunch situation? Does he eat alone, too? Maybe he just needs some help. What about initiating some play dates? Ask him who he might like to play with and see if you can't arrange it on your own turf a few times. Playdates are generally reciprocated and that might get the ball rolling for him so that he knows how to get involved with the other kids at recess.

    Posted by RH November 3, 09 08:48 AM
  1. My older son loves to play by himself at school. He is more social now, but for Kindergarten and 1st grade, he would be friendly with other kids, but then spend time by himself. He has a little brother who he plays with constantly - they shared a room until the past year. I think he just wanted some time alone now and again. He wasn't unhappy - he just wanted to do his own thing. Again and again in this blog I see problems with adults not being able to accept the normal variations in kid behavior. Not all kids are social butterflies. If they are happy, leave them be. Don't convince them out of their happiness by projecting your hangups on them. If they are not happy, then deal with the problem, but don't go borrowing trouble

    Posted by BMS November 3, 09 08:56 AM
  1. I agree with BMS. I really think adults make more of an issue of these things than the children. My 9 year old son is very similar, quite imaginative and creative, and often plays by himself or with a girl friend at school. He is happy, as he is doing what he wants. At home he plays constantly with his 7 year old brother. My husband feels bad for him, and often tries to encourage him (in a nice way) to play soccer or football with the other kids but he's just not interested. Everyone seems to like him, and greets him with big smiles, so he's not being excluded, and he's not exceptionally shy, he's just happier doing what he feels like. I sometimes wonder if I should be concerned, but I think mentioning it to him will just give him the idea that there is something wrong with him when otherwise he seems perfectly happy.

    Posted by Mom2boys November 3, 09 11:46 AM
  1. Grandma, you mention that your grandson, among other things, is intelligent. Did you know that this kind of solitary play is VERY common among gifted children, especially in the lower grades? A gifted youngster may like his peers well enough (and they like him too), but just have no interest in what they are doing, instead contentedly choosing to pursue his own interests solo. If none of the red flags that Barbara and the above posters are raised, and he seems to have a cordial relationship with the others in his class, then I would allow him to just be himself!

    Posted by amyfaith November 3, 09 01:20 PM
  1. I was happiest playing by myself durign school, especially of the friends I'd had since pre-school weren't in my class that year. I loved to draw and write stories in my alone time and I wasn't fond of many of the playground games.

    I'm with BMS and amyfaith on this. Unless your grandson expresses unhappiness, he probably just wants to be alone and there's nothing wrong with that.

    Posted by phe November 4, 09 06:34 AM
  1. I have a very similar 6 yo to your grandson, and wonder how he is doing one year later?
    My son plays with himself at recess but seems fine with it. According to him, sometimes other boys join him. The teacher has brought this to my attention, as she feels he is sad. However, whenever I ask him about recess and friends, he will tell me stories about what he does, and seems quite content with himself. He claims that he doesnt like computer games, which most kids in his class like. He plays very well at home with his cousin who lives nearby (he is an only child). I want to not be concerned, but really dont know what to do....

    Posted by Noono Khan February 15, 11 10:35 PM
 
6 comments so far...
  1. I can understand why you're concerned. None of us wants to see our child or grand child be an outcast. What's the lunch situation? Does he eat alone, too? Maybe he just needs some help. What about initiating some play dates? Ask him who he might like to play with and see if you can't arrange it on your own turf a few times. Playdates are generally reciprocated and that might get the ball rolling for him so that he knows how to get involved with the other kids at recess.

    Posted by RH November 3, 09 08:48 AM
  1. My older son loves to play by himself at school. He is more social now, but for Kindergarten and 1st grade, he would be friendly with other kids, but then spend time by himself. He has a little brother who he plays with constantly - they shared a room until the past year. I think he just wanted some time alone now and again. He wasn't unhappy - he just wanted to do his own thing. Again and again in this blog I see problems with adults not being able to accept the normal variations in kid behavior. Not all kids are social butterflies. If they are happy, leave them be. Don't convince them out of their happiness by projecting your hangups on them. If they are not happy, then deal with the problem, but don't go borrowing trouble

    Posted by BMS November 3, 09 08:56 AM
  1. I agree with BMS. I really think adults make more of an issue of these things than the children. My 9 year old son is very similar, quite imaginative and creative, and often plays by himself or with a girl friend at school. He is happy, as he is doing what he wants. At home he plays constantly with his 7 year old brother. My husband feels bad for him, and often tries to encourage him (in a nice way) to play soccer or football with the other kids but he's just not interested. Everyone seems to like him, and greets him with big smiles, so he's not being excluded, and he's not exceptionally shy, he's just happier doing what he feels like. I sometimes wonder if I should be concerned, but I think mentioning it to him will just give him the idea that there is something wrong with him when otherwise he seems perfectly happy.

    Posted by Mom2boys November 3, 09 11:46 AM
  1. Grandma, you mention that your grandson, among other things, is intelligent. Did you know that this kind of solitary play is VERY common among gifted children, especially in the lower grades? A gifted youngster may like his peers well enough (and they like him too), but just have no interest in what they are doing, instead contentedly choosing to pursue his own interests solo. If none of the red flags that Barbara and the above posters are raised, and he seems to have a cordial relationship with the others in his class, then I would allow him to just be himself!

    Posted by amyfaith November 3, 09 01:20 PM
  1. I was happiest playing by myself durign school, especially of the friends I'd had since pre-school weren't in my class that year. I loved to draw and write stories in my alone time and I wasn't fond of many of the playground games.

    I'm with BMS and amyfaith on this. Unless your grandson expresses unhappiness, he probably just wants to be alone and there's nothing wrong with that.

    Posted by phe November 4, 09 06:34 AM
  1. I have a very similar 6 yo to your grandson, and wonder how he is doing one year later?
    My son plays with himself at recess but seems fine with it. According to him, sometimes other boys join him. The teacher has brought this to my attention, as she feels he is sad. However, whenever I ask him about recess and friends, he will tell me stories about what he does, and seems quite content with himself. He claims that he doesnt like computer games, which most kids in his class like. He plays very well at home with his cousin who lives nearby (he is an only child). I want to not be concerned, but really dont know what to do....

    Posted by Noono Khan February 15, 11 10:35 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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