group play
24 January 2000
Saturday morning, eleven a.m. Where are we going, Mommy? Why, playgroup, of course, Damian. You’ll see your friends Max and Dahlia, Noah and Connor, Josiah and Emma. It’s been fascinating, this playgroup. Fascinating to get to know the other kids -- thirteen to twenty months old, all -- to start to see how vividly distinct each personality is already. How defined they are, these little people with their specific likes and dislikes, fears and needs.

Fascinating too to see Damian in context with other kids. See what he does, try and guess what he thinks. See who he is by how he is. I can sometimes judge my writing better when someone else reads it. Even before they give a critique, I’ve already seen it through their imagined eyes. In the same way, I can see Damian better by seeing him in a group setting.

What I see:

A slender child with a face I think of as elfin but Terri (another mom there) says it’s regal. Sixteenth century royalty, she says.

Hair the color of oak. Fine and silky, curling slightly at the nape of his neck and falling across his high forehead in wisps. (Josiah’s blond afro makes him look like a wild man; Max's hair is thick and straight, Dahlia is just now getting very fine, curly blonde hair.)

A mouth that purses in concentration, that pouts in thought (Connor's pouts when he’s upset), that splits in a wide grin or twitches in a sly smile.

Long, narrow feet. Grownup feet. Very pale. Today, outside, he’s wearing his scuffed Stride Rite shoes. (Connor goes barefoot, has wide, callused chocolate brown feet. Noah crawls around in socks. Emma has Stride Rites with flowers instead of a train.)

Other details as well. When we get there, we blink as our eyes adjust to the interior light of the living room. We see all the kids playing quietly with the resident kid’s toys. A sense of swarming bodies but they’re actually each moving in their individual orbits from toy to toy, occasionally passing each other, occasionally combining for one on one or two on three activity.

Damian, though -- he spends two minutes or maybe two and a half checking out the room -- and then it’s time to go back out. RIGHT NOW, MOMMY! He works the front door knob. Can’t escape. Panics.

I open the door, he races out to investigate green and tree and fence and yard. We spend a half hour out there, in a semi-stranger’s front yard or even walking down the sidewalk checking out total strangers’ flowers and fences and sprinkler spigots.

This happens every single time the playgroup meets. If I wait it out -- if I sit outside alone with my son who is theoretically here to spend time with other kids -- if I let him have his time outdoors, he eventually says fine, you want in, we’ll go in. Goes inside to play with unaccustomed toys and wander through the kitchen and give the other kids a glancing look or two.

Last week and this, though, the opposite has happened. The other kids come out to join Damian wandering the yard and the other moms come to sit on the steps with me or hover over their children in the grass. Damian the groundbreaker, Damian the leader. Damian the individualist, really. Damian the particular. Damian the sun worshipper, flower aficionado, fence gate swinger.

Saturday he pushed a toy lawnmower (the kind that has popping balls in the base) up, down, and around and tried pushing it against the fence. He was fascinated with the thing. Meanwhile, the other kids were crawling through a tunnel and crowding into a play house. Damian wasn’t quite oblivious but he wasn’t exactly with the crowd either.

I would worry except that I know the others play together during the week, they’re body-comfortable with each other. And I know too that this is part of who Damian is. He’s got his own agenda, he’s not part of any crowd. Last week I brought him to the Mother Goose Storytime at the library. He loves books, he’s the right age, he needs to be around other kids more. A no-brainer, right?


Ask a fidgety boy to sit still and listen to a story when he’s used to holding the book, touching the images? Ask a wandering boy to sit still and not investigate the enticing carpeted steps leading down to the podium and storyteller? All the other kids sat still in their mothers’ or nannys’ laps, sat and watched and then stood when asked and let their arms be held over their heads, let their bodies be jiggled to get out the kinks, and then sat once more. Well, mostly. One girl darted forward to touch the felt animals on the board. One boy wandered the back of the room briefly. But Damian? He tried climbing down, he picked books from the shelves, he tried the doorknob and insisted on going out to the main room. Damian the iconoclast, Damian the independent soul.

The librarian said kids get used to it, give him another session or two, he’ll get it. I wonder. I wonder if he will, I wonder if he should. I know he’ll need structure at some point. Classrooms aren’t designed for ever-questing restless children. But that’s still years away. And his concentration is good when he wants to listen, to look, to examine and consider. Should I be trying to push him to learn stillness and group-obedience now? Or should I listen to who he is and let it go?

I think if it were a more interactive session -- if, for instance, it were a music session with kids and drums, kids and xylophones, kids and keyboards -- it might make sense to say "if you sit and pay attention, you will learn and enjoy." But for story time with a few puppets and no hands-on anything? Probably not.

I’m starting to think the biggest task of parenthood is learning to see clearly, without prejudice or expectation. To see who your child is, how he learns and what he needs from you and from the world.

The playgroup teaches me more than him right now. I see the other kids, I see how individual they all are. Jackson loves balls -- all the kids do, but he’s passionate about them. Connor pops balloons with glee. Sean, who has been bouncy and exuberant the last two playgroups, was shy this time. It was his first playgroup not on familiar turf and he stuck close to home base -- his mom. An unexpected vulnerability. Max is almost as much of a loner, an adventurer, as Damian, although I think having an almost-twin sister softens that.

Max crawled through the tunnel while Damian was standing at the entrance holding a ball. They gave each other a long, serious look, Max’s large brown eyes looking deep into Damian’s large gray ones. Each absorbing the fact of this other person. Suddenly they seemed like grown men miniaturized. Sussing each other out. A silent communion.

And then Max ran off and Damian bounced the ball and the spell was broken.

I think this playgroup, in all its messy, unformed splendor, is exactly what Damian needs. Unstructured exposure to the same kids week after week. He can figure out for himself how much he wants to interact and what he makes of all of it. I have fantasies of lifelong friendships starting from this gradual warming spark of interest. It’ll be fascinating to see how it develops as the kids grow more and still more aware of each other as they blossom into childhood.

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