Back in fifth grade, recess meant I could run around, invent games, hide in secret forts and create imaginary cities and worlds. Digging around in the schoolyard was the best part of school and creating new rules every recess with my circle of friends became the best retreat. Scroll ahead 30ish years later to today and things have changed considerably. After school used to be an extension of recess and once dinner was done I had the leisure of running back on my street to play with my friends continuing our playground games until the sun went down. That was my cue to return home.
Play has changed. The quality of play has changed. Social relationships have changed. Kids have adventurous minds but play has now become tied closely with parallel online gaming relationships and friendships based on the random scheduled play dates. What has suffered is nothing short of social incompetency amongst today’s youth.
More and more kids are finding the playground at recess time a challenge. After school is the start of clubs, programs, sports and tutoring programs that fill every evening of the week. Kids have less opportunity for spontaneous after school retreats and parents are busy chauffeuring kids around to different programs.
Every parent wants to see their child socially competent and thriving in the playground, sports, and play dates. Friendships as early as grade 1 help lunchtime, recess, after school, weekends and school days be a safe place away from home. Kids learn to trust, explore their identity and deal with feelings and emotions. Most often interacting with other kids and social competency is a natural learning process. For many kids forging friendships is nothing less than daunting. Some kids demonstrate discomfort in social situations and the challenges of this impact trickles into home life, academics, but most importantly their identity is affected. Some kids become overly assertive, controlling, and bossy while some kids internalize and withdraw challenging a host of interpersonal problems like anxiety, fear, phobias and inflexibility.
Children growing up with access to siblings, or same aged cousins tend to have an advantage of social competency. Adults of single kids tend to become the primary playmate, which does not help the child develop social competency. The child’s personality traits also affect the child’s ability to mingle and socialize with others. These kids need more practice and opportunity and repeated exposure to retrain good social habits.
What to do about it?
Practice, ensure there is opportunity, provide repeated exposure, and ensure consistent interaction with other same aged peers is one critical way of dealing with this. The parents have a big part also in modeling with each other and with other adult friends in front of the child. Booking play dates with consistent friends help kids develop competency. Having kids and adults together on play dates can be important at the beginning while kids figure things out with one another. Kids need to develop belonging to groups, clubs, and sports. Develop connections at school and then extend to afterschool or weekends is one way to form friendships.
Kids need to learn by practicing and doing. Once they make connections, these relationships need to be managed and maintained. If our society has become structured with schedules, then frequent play dates need to be scheduled in. Kids need to learn that they need to invest in their relationships. Parents need to demonstrate and model the art of relationship building.