In elementary school, recess is the only part of the day when kids get unstructured playtime. It’s a short 20 minutes that most children look forward to every day.
My daughter is the exception. A born introvert, she was always content to cook her dirt stew under a tree alone, oblivious to the surrounding children chasing each other around screeching. My little loner would stir leaves and pebbles into her creation while happily singing songs from the latest Disney movie. Her preschool teacher once told me she was expecting birds to land on her shoulder.
When she entered kindergarten, recess looked like a kennel full of dogs released from their crates—20+ 5-year-olds raced to expend every possible ounce of energy before being led back to their rugs or chairs. My girl spent her time on the swings, walking around, or sitting on a bench alone.
Curious to see life through her eyes, I volunteered for recess duty.
I’ll never forget what a teacher said to me on day one, “I have some advice about your toddler’s constipation.” At first, I wondered how she could know about my 2-year-old’s poop problems? Then I learned this sweet woman had been keeping my shy little songbird company on a bench. My daughter preferred to sit with a grown-up, sharing stories about her little sister, over playing tag or hide-and-seek with her peers.
Rainy days were her favorite. Indoor recess meant coloring at her desk or playing with LEGOs on the floor. There was no pressure to find playmates. There was no opportunity to feel left out.
Sometime in the middle of second grade, she became very aware of her social isolation. Phrases like “no one wants to play with me” and “I’m sad and lonely at recess” pierced through my heart like a thumbtack through a sheet of paper. It killed me to see her so sad and discouraged. I knew this was something I couldn’t fix and that life would only get more complicated as she got older.
Feeling powerless, I started putting notes in her lunchbox to remind her that I’m always here for her, even if I can’t always be with her.
At first, the messages were simple: “I love you” with a colorful heart or “Have a great day” with a big smiley face. To my surprise, these little index cards came with an added benefit: classmates began to notice and ask to see her notes. They became a conversation piece—a tool to help her socialize.
As my daughter approaches her ninth birthday, she’s now in third grade and articulate enough to explain her feelings about recess. The other kids are moving so fast; it takes her time to get her bearings and figure out what she wants to do. Some days, she finds a friend or two to swing with or practice gymnastics. Other days, she’s frazzled and lonely.
But every day, she looks forward to opening her lunchbox.
She enjoys her classmates showing interest in the things she loves. Our Golden Retriever. Gymnastics. Swimming. Singing. Characters from her favorite shows. I know she won’t magically transform into an extrovert—I don’t want her to be anything other than the loving, gentle child she has always been. But I do want her to know I am here for her. No matter what. Always.
And if my notes give her a little help in discovering a common interest with a friend or two, that’s just a bonus.