Q: My 2-year-old daughter's preschool teacher tells me that she actively participates during the planned activities but often seems unhappy during free playtime. She tends to play alone. When she does interact with other kids, she tends to correct them when they misbehave. What should I do?
A: For many children, preschool poses some social challenges. There are separations from parents, negotiations over toys, conflicts to resolve, teachers and other children to get along with—it's a lot to manage.
The teachers seem to see your daughter as thriving on structured experiences. Is this similar to how she behaves at home or in other social situations? When you watch her play with other children, does she also seem to prefer to play on her own or does she play more with peers? Sometimes the noise, activity level, and demands of being with other kids in a group can be quite overwhelming. Since most 2-year-olds don't have the language skills to share these complex emotions, they try to control the situation through their behavior. They may cry or act out (hitting, biting, etc.), choose to play alone, or even fall asleep! Some take on an adult, disciplinarian role to try and control their peers' behavior.
There are many ways to help your child cope with—and ultimately enjoy—playing with friends at school. Talk with your daughter’s teacher about what she has tried so far to help her play more interactively with other children. See if she can help your daughter engage with others, such as approaching another child or two and asking if she can join their play, or by helping her involved with other kids in more open-ended activities (e.g., playing with clay or at the sand table) that have no set rules.
Another good idea is to ask the teacher if there are one or two children whom she thinks may be a good “fit” for your daughter, who have similar interests and temperament. If so, maybe she can create opportunities for them to play one on one so that your preschooler can have a positive social experience in the classroom. Consider also spending part of the morning volunteering in your daughter’s classroom so that you can see how she interacts with other children. Peer interactions and group play are pretty tricky at 2 1/2 and you want to make sure your daughter is getting the kind of support she needs in building these skills.
To support her at home, you might consider inviting a friend or two from school to your house to play. This allows your daughter to “practice” social skills in a safe, supportive environment before playing together at school. As in other areas of development, social skills develop at different rates and in different ways for young children. Giving your daughter the time to grow at her own speed, while offering her opportunities to enjoy time with peers, helps her build her first friendships.