Ben’s low-key, co-op preschool has a casual relationship with an occupational therapist named Alanna, who is available to assess the kids when concerns develop about their motor skills and other developmental issues. The relationship is so low-key that I didn’t know about her until very recently (over a year into Ben’s preschool experience), when someone at school, commenting on Ben’s development from a very grounded guy into a climber and jumper, asked how we’d enjoyed working with Alanna. “We didn’t,” I said, “He’s just growing up.”
But he’s going to kindergarten next year, and apparently people want to know if he can stack blocks, hold a pencil, and walk in a straight line. So Alanna comes to preschool a couple afternoons and plays “kindergarten games” with all the older kids, and reports to the teachers so that they can write their recommendations for the kindergartens and let all the parents know if we need to be concerned about our children’s kindergarten “readiness.”
We didn’t have advance notice of Alanna’s first visit. We got to school to see lines of kids trooping over to meet her, but Ben wasn’t interested. His teacher tried to make it sound enticing, but he was busy with some project or other and wouldn’t be budged. So we figured we’d try again next time.
Yesterday morning, I glanced at the calendar and spotted my reminder: “Alanna.”
“Ben! Guess who’s going to be at school today!?”
He looked up from his book, but he could obviously tell from my tone that I was trying to make something he didn’t want to do sound appealing.
“Alanna’s going to be playing kindergarten games with the big kids! Remember? Don’t you want to play kindergarten games with her?”
“No. I don’t know her. I’m shy of her.”
Fair enough. Except, as I pointed out, he’s not particularly shy. He’s dropped his pants at the playground to show off his skateboard underwear, after all. But that’s a different situation, to Ben’s mind, and my tactic met with no success.
At some point, Tony came in and reminded Ben that he likes to show people things he’s interested in, like his engineer’s cap or his muni t-shirt (not to mention those skateboard boxers). No dice. We backed off to regroup. We’d made ourselves anxious by this point; if Ben didn’t see Alanna at school, we’d have to make an office appointment with her, we’d have to get babysitting for Eli, we’d have to delay the kindergarten applications.
And then, with a flash of inspiration that makes me think I am kind of a good mom, I remembered the allure of role play.
“Ben!” I asked. “Do you want to pretend that I’m Alanna, and you’re coming to my office to play kindergarten games?”
This, amazingly, worked. We walked to the bottom of the stairs, where I introduced myself to him as “Alanna-mama.” Then we went up to his room, took turns stacking blocks, drawing shapes, and building train track. After 10 minutes or so, I made him a construction paper certificate noting that he had successfully completed his day of kindergarten games. He went to school that afternoon, met with Alanna, and we’ll get her report next week (at this point, really, who cares what she says? I’m just glad he went).
But now, I’m stuck. Ben keeps asking to play with Alanna-Mama. We don’t play any differently than we normally do, except that I have to pretend not to know him very well.
I’m still pondering the implications of this. Plenty of kids have imaginary playmates. Adam Gopnik’s daughter famously had an imaginary playmate who was too busy to play with her. But when your child prefers playing with an the imaginary version of his mama, one who doesn’t know him, what’s the real mama to think?