We aren’t really playground material. Unless, that is, if no one else is using it. Then it can become an obstacle course for an intense game of tag or a jungle gym for my children who find no joy nor challenge in the “correct usage” of the equipment. They go up the slides, climb on top of the swing bars, and try to spin themselves into white-knuckled, near-projectiles on the merry-go-round.
My four year old climbed a five foot fake boulder at a playground while I watched from about ten feet away. Another mother was soon spotting him from below, asking anxiously, “OH HONEY! Where is your mommy?”
“I’m here,” I said, giving a little wave, “He’s fine.”
Her eyes told me that he was indeed not fine, but she moved on. I appreciate her care, I do. If he’d been wandering toward a busy road or had been being bullied by some big kids, she’d be one I’d want to have around; a protector, an ally, a do-er. Unfortunately, we don’t always see eye-to-eye about what constitutes acceptable risk. I find the current culture of helicopter parenting to be exhausting. Have you been to a playground on a busy day recently? Kids are followed around, constantly! They are directed on how to use the playground “correctly”. There is a chorus of mothers saying “OKAY, no, no, honey, we only go down the slides. NO, no, sweetie, take turns. Oh, say you’re sorry for bumping into that boy. OKAY, kids, not so fast on the merry-go-round; now stop it so this girl can get on, okay, go slowly, NO STANDING, okay stop it and let him off, okay….” It’s like this delicate dance of politeness and correctness and fairness and safety, and really, I didn’t come here to direct a ballet; I came so that my children could dash about, climb, spin, and work off that boisterous and overflowing energy which is there for a reason. And if you don’t follow the Momicopter Culture? You’re shamed. Shamed for letting your kid carry a small stick. Shamed for letting them climb. Shamed for letting them jump off the swings. Shamed for letting them throw snowballs. Shamed for not making them slow the tire swing down to a speed other parents comfortable with (even if it’s just your own kids on it!). Shamed for letting your kid stomp in the rain puddles and get understandably cold.
I vividly remember the playgrounds of my youth. They were made of wood and metal; they had precipitous drop offs, unforgiving angles, and slides that could fry eggs in the summer. Tall towers to climb, high swings from which kids could launch into glory, and wondrously speedy, large merry-go-rounds. And the moms? Stationed on a park bench, book in hand, happy to have a rest while the kids exhausted themselves. Kids got splinters, bruises, and the wind knocked out of them, sure. They also got to navigate risk.
I took my kids to our local playground today, which was blessedly empty. I noticed that the huge wooden ship, where many of my kids’ early memories were staged of harpooning imaginary whales, leading a band of pirates, or braving typhoons, was gone, replaced by an open stretch of newly seeded grass. First had went the open stairwell to the ship’s interior, boarded shut “for safety”. Then the mast. Then the slide. Then the whole boat itself. I noticed quite a few more missing attractions; without a doubt they were deemed “unsafe”. There remained nothing exciting; no apparatus which caused any tingle of fear. There was no risk.
My kids solved it. They climbed in the no-climb zones (atop partitions, over low walls, etc). They dragged big gnarly downed branches in and made weapons and tools out of them. They plunged headfirst down the small slides. Their developing brains made accommodations for the lack of risk. I scribbled out these thoughts on a scrap of paper in my purse and tilted my face to the sun. “Nature is like blank white paper; anything can be wrought upon it; it can absorb any story you draw on it. Playgrounds are like coloring books; the stage, the lines, are set, fixed. There is a degree of success expected because of the proferred design: here is how to enjoy this; follow the rules and it will turn out nicely. Playgrounds with helicopter moms in full command are like paint-by-number pieces, where even the minutest details are not left to chance in the pursuit of excellent, safe, play. I can think of no greater threat to imagination and safety than this current state of affairs.” I wrote it out in hurried cursive. My baby clambered past, slipping on patches of snow. He hollered at the icy cold on his bare hands, shook off the snow, and carried on.
Appropriate risk is crucial to developing brains. Overly coddled and protected children don’t have the tools to interact with their environment in the absence of their parent. I’ll never forget the time when I hosted a stream-stomping birthday party for my son in third grade and invited several boys from his class. One boy, whose mother was on the extreme end of helicoptering, asked if I was going to hold his hand on the walk to the park (it’s just through a development, no major roads nor traffic). When we arrived at the stream, the boys clambered down through the brush and started exploring, splashing, and pretending. He turned to me and asked “Where are the steps to get down to the water?”
“Um…there are no steps, just walk through the brush.”
“But what do I do?”
I was shocked. Had this child ever been allowed to interact with nature without an adult telling him how? “Just go explore, feel the water, run around, be a kid!”
After the creek stomp we headed back and I let the boys build a fire to cook our supper on. The one boy looked on with a mystified expression on his face. Fire was danger, danger is for adults.
I don’t pretend that every adult reading this is agreeing with my point of view, but I do ask you…if 100% of kids love to try to climb up slides, why are we always telling them not to? When the worst case scenario is as benign as getting run into by a kid coming down, which automatically teaches the climber the risk involved and how to hedge against it, say, by observing by sight and sound whether another person is up at the top, why are we interfering? Couldn’t it be that kids’ minds know what they need to do to grow?
It is my contention that good playgrounds enable rather than inhibit appropriate risk, and so do good parents. I think the magic of kids’ play really takes place when they not only navigate bodily risk, but also learn the give and take of social interactions (sharing, apologizing, being considerate) without a parent prompting them. When they screw up, of course a parent should pull them aside and reiterate expectations, but that should be a rarity. They’re there to play, to learn, to risk, and to grow. That will only happen if we get out of the way.
Until then, I prefer nature itself; there is no “correct usage” of a fallen tree spanning a small creek. Maybe it’s a bridge, maybe it’s a pirate ship’s plank to walk, maybe it’s simply the risk-du-jour that needs experienced and conquered.