How Do I Help My Child Play Alone?


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Question: My 4-year-old son, Pablo, loves to play with his trucks, build with Legos, draw pictures — but I always have to be in sight.  Hardly a moment goes by before he's asking me a question or showing me something. He also acts like this with his teachers at school. Is there anything I can do to give him and me space?

Answer: Some children make their parents' lives easy by playing contentedly alone, even from age 1 or 2. Others hold on to playing in their parents', usually mother's, presence. Understanding the challenges involved in playing alone will help
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The capacity to be alone builds as a child progresses toward increasingly confident separations. Separation is more than a child going to school or a playmate's house without tears. It is also about a child's ability to supply from within himself the comfort, self-regulation, conscience, encouragement and other functions he originally depended on his parents to supply. Why does a child's ability to confidently separate particularly affect his ability to play alone?

Emotional challenges of play

Play is a child's work and the primary way children expand their horizons. For example, they expand their fine motor skills when they build a tall tower or their gross motor skills when they attempt a headstand. They expand their views of themselves as they imagine being powerful enough to build that tower or accomplish the headstand. When they defeat the "bad guys" they may expand their sense of safety in the world.  Playing a nurse, doctor, mother or father expands their view of what they could become someday.

Children are drawn to play because they are joyful when they achieve mastery, whether it is taking their first step or reading their first word. However, there is another side to this fun-filled mastery. Every piece of growth presents a challenge and, therefore, causes a bit of anxiety. As Pablo builds a tower, he may wonder: Am I strong enough to make this tall tower? What does it mean if I can't? Will I be able to control my frustration if it falls down? Although Pablo is not asking himself these questions directly, they may well be in his mind, unformulated in words, but leaving him wary of going off and facing his play without your extra help.

Helping a child to play alone

Pablo may not be far enough along the path of separation to have developed enough capacity to deal with the extra risks involved in play. Spend some time each day fully engaged and playing with him. As you play together, he may absorb some of your capacities and be better able to function on his own over time.

You might also set some very short expectations for alone play. Ask him to go in the next room for two minutes. Be sure to set a timer and go get him when the time is up. The secret to making this successful is to only ask what he is likely to be able to do, and to reward him with your smiles, hugs and love. This is about you and him, not a sticker.

The best way to help Pablo is to broaden your effort beyond the narrow issue of whether he can play alone and to help him achieve a healthy separation. You have already noted that he has difficulty playing alone at school, too. School may be the best place to help Pablo build mental muscles for separation. The following strategies may help:

*Allow Pablo to take a beloved stuffed animal to school.

*Send a note that teachers could read during the day.

*Ask teachers to talk about you during the day, perhaps asking if Pablo would like to show you a drawing that he is making.

*Provide Pablo with your undivided attention during drop-off and pickup. Many children can share their school day more easily if you talk to them while you are in their classroom for a few moments at pickup.

*Recognize and verbalize at the drop-off that your leaving may be hard for Pablo (if it seems to be), and perhaps specifically identify his emotion if it is evident (sadness or worry, for example).

*Call in once if he is in a morning program, or more often if he is in a full-day program. He may need this contact to feel secure while away from you.

Not all school staff will support these actions, but yours may understand and work with you in these areas. The day will come when your little shadow will give you some breathing room, and in the intervening time, he has much exciting growth ahead of him.

The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood is a nonprofit agency that promotes the health and well-being of children and families. The question may be a composite or illustration of parents' questions.

To submit a question about children's emotional development and behavior, send an e-mail to editorial@carolinaparent.com with "Ask Lucy Daniels" in the subject line.

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December 2019

Wear your favorite holiday attire and dine with Santa Claus. Enjoy a delicious brunch, stories and crafts, and take pictures with the jolly man from the North Pole. 

Cost: $10/child. Free for ages 2 and younger

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Joyner Park Community Center
701 Harris Rd.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

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Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Historic Polk House
537 N. Blount St.
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Telephone: 919-676-6368
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Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
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Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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The Durham Medical Orchestra performs with special guest Joseph Alessi, principal trombone, New York Philharmonic.

Cost: Free

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Baldwin Auditorium, Duke University
1336 Campus Dr.
Durham, NC  27705
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Cost: Free

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Wake Forest Presbyterian Church
12605 Capital Blvd
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Sponsor: Wake Forest Presbyterian Church
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Contact Name: Meghan Reynolds
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Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
2 East South Street
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
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The choir presents its 49th performance on Handel's "Messiah."

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4709 Ten-Ten Rd
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Telephone: 919-662-2850

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Harris Lake County Park
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Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
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Cost: $3/person

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Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
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801 High House Rd.
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PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
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Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Cost: Free

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Website »

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Cost: $15 and up

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PNC Arena
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137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
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Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
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Telephone: 919-662-2850
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North Carolina Museum of Art East Building and Museum Plaza
Raleigh, NC


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Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
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Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Cost: $30/resident, $45/nonresident

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Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Cost: $18/child; $28 for two children per family

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Middle Creek Community Center
125 Middle Creek Ave.
Apex, NC  27539
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Cost: Free

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Crossroads Fellowship
2721 E Millbrook Road
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Sponsor: Crossroads Fellowship
Telephone: 919-981-0222
Contact Name: Lorraine Entwisle
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1058 West Club Blvd
Durham, NC  27701
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Contact Name: Lauren Tannenbaum
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Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

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Cary Senior Center
120 Maury O'Dell Place
, NC  27513
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Cost: $32/resident, $42/nonresident

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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Give rugby a try. Take part in tag rugby pick-up games every Saturday morning at Baileywick Road Park, near the Second Shelter.  No experience necessary. All ages. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Baileywick Road Park
9501 Baileywick Rd
Second Shelter Field
Raleigh, NC  27615
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Sponsor: Raleigh Redhawks Rugby
Contact Name: denise travis
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Our Reindeer Romp is open to the entire community and our Girls on the Run families. So join us! Celebrate as nearly 1,000 girls reach their end-of-season goals – the finish line is only the...

Cost: $30 - $35

Where:
Koka Booth Amphitheater
8003 Regency Pkwy
Cary, NC  27518
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Sponsor: Girls on the Run of the Triangle
Telephone: 919-401-6307
Contact Name: Jamie Botta
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Ages 5-12 make a picture frame for the holidays. Snack provided. Register online. 

Cost: $30/resident, $45/nonresident

Where:
Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Website »

More information

Ages 1-5 and caregiver delight in the discoveries of nature. Register online. 

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Travel with us to Puerto Rico with books, games and arts and crafts!  Join the staff of ISLA (Immersion for Spanish Language Acquisition) for a fun filled hour! Best for ages 3 and up with a...

Cost: Free Gratis

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
View map »


Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

One ticket admits the entire family to decorate a special gingerbread house. Supplies provided. Workshops available at 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Allergy-free workshop available at 11 a.m....

Cost: $40

Where:
Family Preschool
4907 Garrett Rd
Durham, NC  27707
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Sponsor: Family Preschool
Telephone: 919-402-1500
Contact Name: Sue Henson
Website »

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Family Wildlife Series: Holiday Habitat Helpers Saturday, December 14, 2-3 Attract winter wildlife to your backyard by providing or improving their habitat.  Create simple outdoor decorations...

Cost: Free

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Rd
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Join us as we watch for meteors during the Gemenids Meteor Shower. Local astronomers will help us observe these shooting stars and other phenomena in the night sky. As a bonus we may see or hear...

Cost: Free

Where:
American Tobacco Trail
1309 New Hill-Olive Chapel Rd.
Apex, NC  27502
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park and the American Tobacco Trail
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

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Favorite Christmas songs are presented in authentic Nashville country style with dazzling guitars and fiddles along with soaring harmonies. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: $25/person

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Website »

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See the choir perform beloved Christmas songs with guest vocal group AVANTE. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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