Get out of the Play!
I was cosy and relaxed on my walk to the park, watching the trees sway back and forth in the wind as I rode along in my stroller.
And then BRIGHT! Everything is bright! And SCRATCHY. Scratchy grass beneath my feet. I like grass. And look, the playground. Oh I love the playground.
But there are some kids. Some big kids. And I’ll just wait a minute and watch them before I join in. I’m happy to wait. And there’s this nice grass to play with, and look an ant! Where are you going ant?
“Do you want to climb up here?”
Mummy wants me to climb now. But look at this ant! And it has ant friends, and they’re all walking in a line. That’s funny!
“Come and feel the sand!”
Oh, I have to feel the sand. But the ants aren’t walking to the sand, they’re going this way, and I kind of want to follow. Where do they go?
“Why don’t you go down the slide?”
Ah! And now Mummy’s picked me up and the ants are so tiny and I can’t see them from up here and what if I lose them and ‘NOOOO!!!!’
I’m not supposed to hit. But I wasn’t hitting. I just wanted to get down. I was trying to see my ant friends.
“Climb this! Put your foot here!”
But I can’t follow my ant friends anymore because I’m supposed to be climbing.
“Come on, hurry up, slide down, it’s fun.”
It’s high up here! And maybe I can find my ants. Except there’s no time again because I have to slide. But the slide scares me a bit. The slide is big, and I want to wait and watch how the other kids do it first.
“Go on, the other kids want a turn too, I’ll help you, I’m waiting”
But I have to go first, and Mummy is waiting.
“Good job! Now let’s go on the swing!”
The smallest things fascinate a child, don’t they? And it’s sad that as adults we lose that ability to be in the moment, to notice and appreciate the little things. We marvel at a child’s ability to play for hours with a stick, or the way they stop to smell the flowers, seeing the world through new eyes. These are beautiful qualities and we lament their passing. But I can’t help but think that it’s more than just age that extinguishes them. It’s adults too, trying to rush children through life, giving them subtle and not so subtle messages about what’s ‘really’ important (according to us).
The example above is just one very common one. It is the rare child these days that is allowed to fully explore their own environment without adult direction or interruption. Children at the park are constantly directed to ‘look at this’, ‘have a go at that’, ‘climb up here’ and ‘smile for a picture’ while you’re doing it. And then when it’s time to go before they’ve explored anything of their own interest we wonder why they have a meltdown.
When we constantly interrupt a child’s own play or wondering to tell them what we think they should be doing, what messages are we sending them? When they ignore us and continue on their way only to be physically picked up and redirected to an adult initiated activity, what must they think?
Maybe that we don’t respect them? Maybe that their choices aren’t as important as ours? Maybe that hurrying to see everything is more important than enjoying just one thing fully? Maybe that there is no time for daydreaming? Maybe that their own interests aren’t valid? Maybe that we don’t trust them to occupy themselves?
And then we complain that they can’t play independently, and need us to constantly entertain them. They were born very capable of entertaining themselves until we trained them out of it. You can’t expect kids to have great concentration if they’re always being interrupted. You can’t expect them to be able to entertain themselves if they’ve always been entertained.
Self-directed, unstructured play time is invaluable for children. In a world of competition and ‘getting ahead,’ lots of parents feel the pressure to be actively giving their children lots of experiences, including play. But it’s not about giving children experiences, it’s about letting them have experiences. Treating them like real people and honoring their choices. Sometimes we just need to get out of the play!
I’m NOT saying don’t ever play with your children. Playing together is fabulous! But it’s also ok not to play with them most of the time. It’s ok to wait for an invitation to play. You don’t have to get involved and encourage them to play in ways you think are beneficial. You just have to realise that ALL play is beneficial. Any way they decide to play is ok. Play, like children, does not need to be controlled.
So what’s your job at the park? Not much! Just watch, or read a book. Or if you want to play yourself, then go for it. Personally, I like the swings.
Let them be free to choose their own activities, whether that is playing with the playground equipment or not. There’s no need to interrupt, distract, or redirect. Let them know that you respect their choices and their interests by leaving them to pursue them.
Don’t teach them to rush through life. Don’t teach them to always look to others for direction instead of looking inside of themselves. Get out of the play!
I want to share some park experiences with you.
(tldr; I just really agree with you.)
Time and again I would feel like the heinous parent for not getting into the park and pushing my kid. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my kid, or want to spend time with them (and I am certainly not judging that one parent who has legit reasons for being beside their child). But I spend time with my kids all day long, I bring them to the park so they can meet other kidds. It frustrates me that my kids are “playblocked” (to play on a much cruder term) by the other parents who are hovering over their own kids. My 4yo is not going to go and say hello to that other 4yo who is with her mother, she will if the 4yo is playing alone though.
Or parents who get into the park and start belting out rules – my biggest bug bear is “don’t run up the slide”, I don’t understand that rule. Running up the slide is fun, so why make this rule? If we all get out of the park and watch we will see that they are really really good at working it out (and don’t ask about bullies, they won’t happen, we have a dozen parents watching ringside). So I was at a park with piece of play equipment that had three slides coming out of it. One tall swirly one, and two smaller ones. My 2yo was being rather annoying (I thought) and playing at the bottom of one of the smaller slides. I stood back, feeling death stares. What I saw was that every kid coming down either jumped on the parallel slide, or slid down slowly. No one hit her, no one asked her to move. It was like they all recognised a baby, and gave her space.. One child did come up do me and tell me the rule “don’t climb up the slide”. I kindly looked at the child, pointed at my child and said “well tell her” (yeh I would have stepped in if I felt the kids had being trying to move my daughter but had run out of options, but aside from one non-slide user telling me this random rule, no one seemed bothered). Same play equipment I saw three older boys run out of the water and head up to the swirly slide. They were wet and going fast, one remained at the bottom as a look out, calling out when it was safe to fly down (so they wouldn’t fly out and hit random kids passing by). No one told them to do this… but within a couple of minutes a parent had chastised them and set some kind of rule about it. Another park, another slide, a handful of kids were amusing themselves running up the slide, another parent and another rule.
I don’t get it. Whenver I step back I see kids being kind, allowing for age differences, caring for each other, why are we setting these really random rules (I mean, who ever said slides were for going down?).
A park near us has a flying fox (one of those modern types), the flying fox begins on a platform 1metre high. Whenever I visit I see one of two scenarios. Either a parent is involved helping the kids, or the kids are playing by themselves. When the kids play by themselves their is a clear system. A kid flies down, dismounts, brings the pommel back to the top, walks around to the end of the line, next kid has a turn (at any stage if the kid struggles, another kid always helps). But when an adult is involved it is very different, the system always goes like this. Adult helps kid get on, adult pushes kid, adult lets kid stay on the pommel while the adult returns the pommel to the top, and then the kids dismounts at the top, this causes lots of confusion as the top becomes convoluted with kids who have had turns, the adults doesn’t keep track of any of this and ends up sticking these kids on for second and third turns while other kids wait at the bottom of the ladder in this unmoving line. Every time!
One final thought about letting kids be. We went to a mega-park, the type with those three story high slides that have cages that you have to climb up in segments. This one had about 100 kids in it. My 4yo was enthralled. She wanted to do it, so I let her go. She was nervous, she climbed each stage with pride, when she got to the top she was too young to have realised that the line actually started on the level below, so she jumped about 10 places in the queue. When she got to the bottom, oh wow, she was blown away that she had done it. She looked up so impressed, and begged her friend to come. I bit my tongue so hard when her friend’s father took her up. I was angry that he had stolen that joy from her (and yes, I get that their is a different sort of joy in doing things with your kids… but I think perhaps we need to be careful not to steal their glory all the time, lest they think they are not capable).
(Here is a picture of the slide from a random blog http://themummyproject.com/speers-point-variety-park/)
Infuriating!! Gah!! I couldn’t agree with you more on all of the above!!!!
Really interesting anecdotes 🙂 On a side note, we are from the Hunter too! 🙂
That slide is HUGE. Well done your four yr old!
Hi. I have a question. What if the big brothers tell the smallest one what to do in playground? You described exactly what they do with their brother. What should I do?
Kids teaching kids is awesome. They do it very very differently then the way adults do. (My opinion).
I agree, kids helping and teaching kids is great. But I also know what you mean and sometimes my big kids do tend to take over and ‘help’ the little ones too much in their excitement. I just talk to them about letting them do it themselves and how good that feeling is when you accomplish something on your own so we don’t want to interrupt that for little sister 🙂
This bugs me to no end! I’m always the one mom who sits by myself allowing my children to, “GASP” walk more than 20 feet away from me! They climb trees, run around on the playground and have a great time. My little one wants to be like the big kids, so I allow him to try out the more advanced equipment. Whereas my friends with the same age children constantly stand by their side and shout “BE CAREFUL!!” I know my children and I know they will not try something if they don’t think they can do it. I’ve noticed far too many times that the kids who are constantly told to be careful are usually not very careful and get hurt all the time, because they have no confidence in themselves.
Frustrating!! I’ve noticed the same.
We really only have one “rule” regarding our kids on the playground.
The Rule: We don’t help.
Whatever the kids are big enough to do by themselves, they’re allowed to do. If they want to climb to top of the tall slides, and go down, they can. If they need help to climb up, (because they’ve never done it before), they can’t until they can do it by themselves. In our minds, and hopefully, in real life too, this has led to the kids being more independent, and reduced injuries a bit.
The system tends to get them to try things sooner, and does occasionally lead to issues with other parents. For example, one day a panicked father found me, informed me that my 3 y.o. was climbing to the top of the highest slide up the hill rather than on the stairs, that I should be more careful, and that he had enticed him back down with the offer of a cookie. My only response was to tell the father never offer someone else’s kids food from strangers.
Goofy adults aside, the Rule has also led to other unintended but awesome consequences. On a homeschooling hike, we crested a hill to find a wall from some long torn down structure, and a log from a fallen tree next to it. The kids immediately asked us to move the log into a crack in the wall so they could walk up it. We told them they could put the log wherever they liked. They tried, but couldn’t lift it. No matter. A few minutes later, our kids, and a band of about 8 others attacked the log again, splitting up on either side, and placed it exactly where they wanted it!
When my son and I go to the playground he tells me to go sit down and I do lol. He says I’m going to go talk. So he talks to grown ups. Usually starts off showing whats in his hands and sometimes the parents are really kind other times they ignore him. He comes back and says they not talking to me. I do see that when kids are left alone most of the time they are wonderful. For some reasons adults think they are always right. So I’m always the one looking like the “bad Parent” at the park. One time a man told my son he was too small to do something, I’ve never restricted my child’s capabilities. Definitely not a strangers place to do that. I LOVE how you speak for the children. What they see and want to do does matter!!
Oh man, how annoying! I hate it when adults come in with their rules and wreck play. Ugh.
Couldn’t agree more! We were at the park the other day and there was a 1.5-2 yr old trying to climb STAIRS to get to a slide and his dad took him down and redirected him to something “his size.” Later I was watching my daughter (5) play on a zip line thing when a girl about 7 approached her and was all excited to try. When she was getting ready to go her dad came over and said, “Oh man, you don’t think that’s too scary?” He didn’t stop her, but after he said that she was visibly nervous, started saying she was scared, and almost didn’t try at all!
On the way out I mentioned to my husband that it’s times like that I’m reminded we aren’t raising our kids the “normal” way haha.
Right? This is why I don’t go to playgrounds often LOL. Madness.
Thank you, Sara, for writing this down!
That’s exactly what I was thinking about for the past few days.
The two most common phrases I hear caregivers ask their children are,
“Come this way!” and “Where do you want to go NEXT?”
It’s the word NEXT that I often find problematic. It sounds as if the children should have a list of things they want to do on the playground and tick them off as they play.
Yes! Always with NEXT!! What about appreciating NOW!!
This is beautiful Stephanie. I agree with what you have to say. I could put ideas into words the way you do. You have a special talent. I mean I could not be able to put what you feel into words like you do. I’m so very proud of you and your family.
This really is so frustrating! I know everyone is just sharing stories now buy here’s mine lol
I used to have a roommate with an 18 month old son who I watched while his dad was at work (and a lot of other times as well since we lived together and I adored him), I quickly adapted a hands off method of caring for him because it worked for us and helped him establish independence.
We went to the playground every morning, it had 2 play structures one for 1-4yo and one for 5+ (they were labeled as such). I usually took him out of his carrier, plopped him on the ground and went to the swings. If we were alone everything was always fine, he never touched the toddler structure and could climb the big kid one with ease and do the slides. If he wandered off I’d follow a short distance behind but let him explore the whole area.
One day we went to the park later in the afternoon and bigger kids were there, I let him out of the carrier and found a place to sit. Not a minute later I see a mother walking over to physically remove him from the big structure saying “This is for the big kids you play over here” while taking him to the little structure where no one else was playing. I went up to her and said “He prefers the big structure” while corralling him away from her and she gave me the “Oh look how young! she must not know how to care for this baby” look that i hate. She said she didn’t want any of the older kids to knock into him and I told her “He’ll learn not to get in the way” which absolutely horrified her. The idea that I would let this baby be in a situation where he might get a little hurt was enough to make me the WORST parent in her eyes.
in any case an older kid (4yo) saw all of this and decided to come play with my baby since he was all alone and they had a great time together (even got hurt a little bit) which just goes to show that my kid would have been FINE the other kids would have managed with a baby near by. They always do.
So lucky he had you to trust him!!
I’ve NEVER left a comment on any website or blog (and I read MANY) but this was soooo good I had to just come by and say thank you for sharing about this so eloquently and simply, and in general for your amazing blog articles and instagram posts. You are a wonderful source of inspiration for me and you are making me a better mother – for that I am thankful. A faithful follower and reader. 🙂
Oh that’s just made my day. Love to you xx
“You just have to realise that ALL play is beneficial. Any way they decide to play is ok. Play, like children, does not need to be controlled.” This is good if you don’t have a kid who will be playing fine and suddenly and very quickly shove an entire handful of gravel in his mouth and start trying to chew it.
I don’t know, I let them eat their fair share of dirt and things lol
Thank you for that article….I am one of these parents who tries to control my child’s play (constantly worry about him hurting himself) but I had never really thought about the impact it could have! I shall have to relinquish control and see what happens!
I love so much that you considered this instead of getting defensive. So great when that happens. Makes the negative comments worth it. You’re awesome xx
This is brilliant!! Love every word, in my head it is all SO true. At the playground with friends I have suggested a few times that maybe we should just leave the kids to it and let them sort there play, indifferences etc themselves…the answer has has always been from a few: “It would be carnage”!! Maybe, but what lovely carnage it would be!!! 🙂
I find it hard when socialising with people that we like but think so differently from.
This is wonderful and the blog is a breath of fresh air!
Today is one week since my son, 7, is “unschooled” and we have the chance to have a “free school” where we live (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico).
We are totally multicultural (Mexican, French, Moroccan, Afghan…) and since his early days, I have tried and give my son the space, the freedom that he wanted to grow, mature and learn with joy. I am thrilled by the decision of unschooling him, and I see, as you correctly point out in your various posts, the trust is the key ingredient.
If you want to visit, I opened a blog about our adventures in free learning as many of my friends are most interested. Come and visit, you are most welcome.
Love it. You speak what is on my heart.