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Ask the Experts

My Kindergartner Doesn't Play Well With Others

By Debra Collins, Family therapist

Question:

My 5-year-old son doesn't play well when he has playdates at our house. He asks to have friends over all the time, but when the kids come over, he doesn't play with them well. He asks to watch a movie or play with me or his dad or doesn't want to do what his friends are doing.

He also has trouble in a group of three boys. Two of them leave him out, and he doesn't know how to play with the group. There is a little clique already. It seems if the group isn't doing what he wants, then he is upset. I don't think I raised him to be like that. Is it an age thing, or is he just being a brat?

Most of our playdates end with my son in his room because he is in trouble for not playing well with others. I hate for that to happen. How can I help him?

Answer:

Without personally knowing you or your child, I can say that much of his behavior appears to be developmentally appropriate. Five-year-olds can look capable, but they are still only 5, and at this age they tend to not seek out things that are new or difficult.

It is a positive sign that your son is requesting opportunities to play with his friends. When he doesn't know how to play cooperatively, his asking you to play with him or watch a movie is a better coping strategy than fighting with the other children. You could highlight it as strength rather than focus on when he gets in conflicts. He may need more assistance from you with his peers so that he has alternative behaviors for when he isn't getting along.

Child development experts consistently report that three children at a time does not work well. There is a greater chance for two to gang up on the other. A 5-year-old often prefers to keep to himself if a situation is stressful. You might want to start with one child over at a time and provide an activity for them to do together. This might help them feel more comfortable and provide some direction.

Although you want your son to have many different play experiences, having him and a friend watch an occasional children's movie might be easier than unstructured play. Ask the friend's parents for permission to view a movie at your home that everyone is comfortable with. You can watch it with them and then talk about it together.

Prepare your son for the playdate by going over what you expect of him in a nonjudgmental and supportive way. Ask him to think of ways he could solve problems with his friend, and then you can rehearse it. Make the playdate manageable by starting with only an hour at first and building up to more time.


Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

02/11/2010:
"Hi, My five year old son is an only child. He is in kindergarten now and rarely plays with other kids. He'd rather play by himself or play with adults. Rarely does he ask for playdates. When i make a playdate for him he acts excited but I have to coax him into playing with the child. I'm worried. What do you think?"
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