Preschool

What to do when your kid won't participate in group activities

If your preschooler doesn’t want to go to soccer or swimming, should you force them to participate? Some parents worry they’re raising a quitter already.

At the half-day preschool program he attended from the ages of two to four, Stephanie Ayers’ son Grant wouldn’t participate in group activities.

“He would not take part in circle time, or their group craft time. If they were all doing an activity outside together, he would have none of it,” the Toronto mom says. “The teachers found that when they gave him the choice to sit on the outside of the circle, he would observe, but he wasn’t into participating at all.”

Similarly, at swimming lessons, he would sit on the pool deck and watch. Grant never threw tantrums about the activities, he just didn’t want to join in, Ayers says. Her older son had always been eager to interact with other kids, so she worried about Grant and wasn’t sure what kinds of social skills for kids are normal at what age.

Laura Drake knows what this is like. The Kamloops, B.C., mother says her three-year-old child doesn’t want to do any activities. Ivy will happily play with other kids, but when it comes time for an extracurricular class or even the dance classes offered through her daycare, she’s not interested.

A child who doesn’t want to do any activities “very, very common,” says Ashley Morgan, a clinical psychologist with the Child Development Institute in Toronto. The fact that preschoolers are in the middle of major developmental changes across multiple areas can explain a lot of this reluctance, Morgan says. Preschoolers’ language skills evolve at different rates, and a child’s ability to express themselves or comprehend instructions could play a role in their refusal to engage.

There’s also their cognitive development to consider: Their attention spans can be brief, and their memory is still developing. “They get distracted very easily,” Morgan says. Separation anxiety and fear of strangers is also common. Any one of these factors can prevent a little person from feeling comfortable enough to join in a group activity. Transitioning from one activity to another, or simply getting ready to leave the house, can be difficult for kids this age. Add in special clothing or equipment and a need to get out the door at a specific time, and you’re basically asking for trouble.

Social skills for kids, and how they develop, can also depend on whether a child has had previous exposure to group-learning situations. A child’s individual personality and temperament can also be a contributing factor, Morgan says. Some children simply need more independent downtime after a busy week in daycare, preschool or kindergarten.

So what’s the parent of a reluctant participant to do? The first step, Morgan cautions, is to make sure your goals are in line with your child’s developmental stage. What is a reasonable expectation when it comes to social skills for kids this age? “You have to stop and think, ‘Is this really their fault?’ What’s appropriate, given that they’re still learning about the world?”

Also be sure to consider whether your child may be tired, hungry or overstimulated by some aspect of the environment. Is the activity at a time of day when you know your child is more likely to have a hard time? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, address the need—or the schedule—first.

Even before enrolling preschoolers in extracurricular programs, parents should think about what their child’s true interests and skills are. Choosing activities that a child is more likely to be engaged in can go a long way toward making the experience positive. Signing your three-year-old up for soccer because you dream of watching them play in the World Cup one day might not work out if your child is clearly more interested in art or music. Forcing your kid into skating might not be the best idea if ordinary boots and snow pants are already a daily battle.

Depending on a preschooler’s verbal abilities, parents could also try having a conversation about it before signing up—“kind of getting their buy-in,” Morgan says. Attending a trial class or observing the program in action before committing is another great way to avoid ending up with a child who doesn’t want to do any activities and test out the potential for success.

And if you start an activity that just doesn’t seem to be working, it’s OK to stop going.

“If you’ve given it several tries, and tried problem-solving and talking to your child, and if there’s extreme crying or clinginess, maybe just give them a bit of a break,” Morgan says. Hitting “pause” on the activity doesn’t mean you’re becoming a push-over parent, especially at this young age. Parents can revisit the opportunity to engage later or opt for a different activity.

As preschoolers develop, their response to group activities—and their social skills—will likely change. These days, Grant, who is now 10, plays violin and baseball and participates in group activities at school. In fact, his mom says he’s a leader now.