Saturday, January 24, 2015

Peers and Play

"TAG! You're it!" A gym full of four and five year olds run all around, shouting and giggling in a delightful game of freeze tag. Instead of using hands to tag each other, they wield giant foam pool noodles. The energy and excitement in the room is electric as they exert the bubbling energy that only a small child can produce. Among those running and laughing is an exuberant five-year-old named Benjamin, who happens to carry an extra chromosome. He squeals with unhindered joy as he makes his way around the gym, thrilled to be a part of the activity surrounding him. I wish I could have been there to see it!

When Benjamin returns home from school each day, I am quick to check his backpack, where his aid keeps a daily journal of his activities and behavior. A few days ago she wrote about the game of freeze tag during their gym class. She clearly communicated my son's excitement in the midst of it, commenting, "I wish you could have seen him!" My heart swelled as I envisioned my little boy taking part in a game with his peers and having so much fun doing so. Sometimes it's the little things that can be the most meaningful!

Benjamin is attending his second year of Pre-K, and he loves it so much! Next year we will transition him to Kindergarten, and we may decide to complete two years of that as well. We are letting him take his own pace, not in a hurry to push him through anything. His experiences in school, first as a three-year-old at Head Start and now as a student at a local elementary school, have been wonderfully fulfilling and relieving.

When he was still a small toddler, some other stay-at-home moms and I set up a weekly play group. We  initially met during story time at the library and realized our children were all very close in age. We took turns hosting the play time week to week. Benjamin was the only child with special needs, but I was happy to give him the opportunity to be around his typically developing peers and to have the opportunity for some adult conversation during the day! Our children were still young enough that they didn't really play with each other but were content to play side by side. In reality, the other children played while Benjamin sat and watched, sometimes twirling his small, stuffed gorilla by the arm or playing with a light-up musical toy. Though I enjoyed those times, I wrestled with some insecurities as well. It was difficult to see the numerous skills that the other children had easily accomplished, especially since so many of them were still on a distant horizon for Benjamin. Sometimes my mind would wander to the future when my son would be in school, and I wondered how the other children would treat him. Would he be a target? Would he be teased all the time? Would he have many friends?

I realize that no child is immune from being teased by their peers. I experienced teasing multiple times as a child myself. I know that my son is still very early into his school years, and I recognize that he will undoubtedly have to deal with poor treatment from classmates at some point, as all children do. However, I have been so pleasantly surprised thus far at how warmly Benjamin's peers have received him. When he was attending Head Start, he would be given an enthusiastic greeting from the other children upon entering the classroom. "There's Benjamin! Hi, Benjamin!" His year-and-a-half attending Pre-K has been just as encouraging. His classmates approach him almost daily, inviting him to play. He has had notes and pictures sent home with him from other students. Last year, his classmates would often argue over who got to read a book to him. While the other children recognize that there is something different about my son, they readily accept him. In some ways, it seems that his delays make him even more endearing to his little friends.

I am so thankful that going to school is something Benjamin looks forward to each day. I'm so thankful that it is a place where he feels safe and accepted. My prayer is that this will continue as he gets older. I pray that he will be able to form meaningful friendships in time as his social skills and social awareness increase. I pray that he will grow up feeling confident in who he is. I pray that he will always feel that he is loved and valued, by teachers and peers, by friends and family, and most importantly, by the One who created him and who calls him a masterpiece!

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