In the beginning of Angus’s grade one year, we received a call from his teacher. One of his classmates had thrown a handful of gravel at him at recess; Angus was fine but his classmate had been sent home and would return the following day with an apology. The girl threw the gravel because she asked Angus to play with her and he refused.

At that school, there was a rule: anyone who asked to play had to be invited to join. The only exception to this was when a child wanted to play on their own—which, that day, had been Angus’s choice.

The phone call left me a little unmoored. I was used to being called by teachers. Since day one of preschool, I had been called frequently, but this was either to solicit my advice in dealing with a difficult behaviour or to report that a difficult behaviour could not be dealt with and I needed to take Angus home. To be notified of a situation that had already been dealt with was new to me. New also was the fact that a “zero tolerance” policy actually meant zero tolerance. But what surprised me the most: my kid wanted to spend recess playing by himself.

I have always been aware that Angus requires alone time—that he uses solitude as a reset when he’s feeling overwhelmed. In that way, we are similar. But there was something about recess, something about playing alone when other kids were playing together that was unsettling to me. Surely Angus didn’t really want to play by himself. I know I’m not the only parent quick to make that assumption. I’ve heard other parent friends lamenting their seemingly friendless and miserable kids, after drive-by observations of their children alone on the playground.

The thing is, sometimes those assumption are correct. Often Angus complains of kids not playing with him: unsuccessful attempts to insert himself into games, requests that are denied. He has had ample experience being teased and excluded, and because of this if there are other kids present and Angus is playing alone, I automatically assume this is not by choice.

In kindergarten, Angus attended a small independent school that had a half-day option, but it was a long drive from our house. There was little sense for me to drive home between drop-off and pick-up so I often worked in the coffee shop down the street.

Frequently, I would “stretch my legs” with a walk past the play area that directly corresponded with recess. Because of the layout of the playground, Angus was never able to see me, so there was little deterrent for the spying aside from the misery I felt over his presumed loneliness. And I often presumed he was lonely. Sometimes I would see him engaged in play with other kids—or at least near other kids—but most often he’d be by himself.

The day I saw him sitting alone under a tree with an encyclopedia, I asked his teacher to not let him take books outside anymore. I figured that if he were reading, other kids might think he didn’t want to play. Never for a second did I assume Angus wanted to be alone. That, overwhelmed and overstimulated from a morning in the classroom, he was calming himself down in the best way he knew how—by hiding behind a thick volume and slowly flipping pages.

After school, on days I didn’t spy, I’d ask Angus who he played with at recess. He never said he played alone. Instead he’d name off a couple kids in his class. He wasn’t that successful with his deception, as he frequently named children who hadn’t actually been at school that day. Of course his invented playmates were a direct result of my enthusiastic response to any social interaction I observed; Angus knew I cared if he played with other kids and so it made sense to claim that he had.

This year, from what I can tell, Angus plays with other kids most recesses. Generally this play is facilitated and monitored by his Educational Assistant, who has taken a motley crew of boys under her wing. I’m grateful for that, and I know he is also. But often at pick-up time I find Angus crouched in the corner of his classroom with a book, or hovering in the doorway, or hidden in the tent in the cloakroom—alone. Though my chest clenches every time, I try to remember that being alone can be by choice. I don’t ask who he played with at recess, but rather how recess went. I don’t spy either. I just cross my fingers tightly and hope that Angus has friends with him when he wants them.

Laura Trunkey is the mother of the amazing Angus, and the author of the story collection Double Dutch (House of Anansi, 2016). Find her at lauratrunkey.com.