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Ask Dr. Sears: Social Help for Little Loners

Q. My kindergartner plays by himself all the time. How do I help him feel comfortable playing with other children?

A.
Don't fret: Your child's ability to entertain himself on his own is a positive trait  -- especially if he's not prone to boredom. If he doesn't like to play with other kids and he's easily bored, then there's cause for concern. It may be that your child simply needs a little help developing his people skills. Here's how you can act as social chairperson for your child:

Watch how he plays by himself. If he seems to thoroughly enjoy entertaining himself with creative and imaginative play, by all means, encourage him. Self-play is particularly common in highly intelligent children who get caught up in their own creativity.

Volunteer to help in the classroom. Pick a day, or even just a few hours, to observe your child in the classroom. Notice the temperament and traits of the children he interacts with. You'll learn a lot about prospective playmates and how comfortable he is in social settings.

Match playmates. If your child does gravitate toward a certain classmate, set up a playdate. Have them play games you think they'll both enjoy. Act as a coach during games (and sometimes even a referee during the inevitable toy squabbles!). You may notice that the children sometimes play separately ("parallel play") and at other times interact. This is perfectly normal at this age, as they're finding their comfort level with other kids. Once your child is comfortable with a particular child, arrange playtimes with other temperament-compatible children.

Even if your child doesn't have a playmate around, you should play with him to get him used to interacting and having fun with others. When you play together, be goofy and silly. Not only is it fun for you to let yourself go, but it's great for your child to see Mom and Dad act like kids.

Don't overdose on playdates. Initially, you'll want to avoid playdates that last for long periods of time. As your child becomes more comfortable with other children, gradually extend the length of playtime. Start with one hour, then two, then half a day, and finally a whole day. Even if he seems to be taking well to his new social life, your child may still withdraw and play by himself at times. Don't worry if this happens  -- children need social breaks during the day, just as adults do.

Ease him into group play. Once your child is comfortable with one-on-one play, invite two friends over, and then three. Group play can be overwhelming to some children, so take it a step at a time.

As you help your child become more socially comfortable, you'll notice that he warms up to both one-on-one playdates and group play. Soon he'll enjoy playing with other kids just as much as he enjoys his alone time.

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