My Love-Hate Relationship with the Playground

In the time it took for me to say hi to my friend at the playground, my 2.5 year old scaled a steep hill and was halfway up a ladder to a climbing structure intended for kids three times his age. (The ladder was a bit like this one, but much taller.) By the time I caught up with him, he was higher than I could reach. I didn’t think he would actually fall off; it was more likely that his foot would slip and he would end up in an awkward split with one leg dangling in the air.

I composed myself, and kept my mouth shut. From my viewpoint, it was a precarious situation and I didn’t want to distract him from what he was doing, or to suggest that he had any reason to be nervous. I could see that he was serious, focused, and thoughtfully testing his hold on every rung before he committed to moving on to the next rung. Quickly and safely he made it onto the main structure, and down a curly slide, head first. I was relieved, and really proud. I don’t know that I would have climbed that ladder, even as an older child.

While this situation ended well, and I do believe in letting my children take supported risks, this situation shows why I’m reluctant to take my kids to the playground. Here are a few reasons why:

My children, especially my older child, can climb equipment meant for much older children.

If you were in doubt, this is almost certainly a humble brag. I’m actually pretty proud of what N. can accomplish. The trouble starts when he gets to the top of whatever he’s climbing. Play structures for toddlers have very limited options for where to go. It’s usually either down the way you came, down a slide, or along a walled bridge. Play structures for older children have many routes down – very few of which my toddler can manage (like a vertical rope ladder, a climbing wall, or a fireman pole). Not knowing where he’s going to go, and knowing that he isn’t perfectly steady on his feet and could trip, I’m on edge trying to figure out where I should be to spot him, just in case an accident happens.

I have two kids going in two directions.

This is a developing issue. G. is definitely old enough to be set loose at the playground, and he is certainly capable of climbing all around the structures built for toddlers. He’s also too old to stay strapped into the stroller the entire time we are out. This means that I can easily end up in a situation where both kids are engaging in a new activity and both kids need my supervision and support. Typically, this also means that they are nowhere near each other. Obviously I can’t be in two places at once, which leaves me the option of picking up the child nearest me, interrupting his activity, and heading over to the other child. I really dislike having to do this, plus it means I can relax even less.

Playgrounds often seem uninspiring.

Play structures are static. They don’t change. Once you’ve figured out the ladder, you only need to climb it a few more times to master it, and then what do you do? The distance between the rungs never differs, you always end up at the same height. While some of our local playgrounds are revamping themselves and including varied terrain, imaginative structures (like a giant ship) to climb on, there is an absence of loose materials, objects to manipulate, opportunities for children to control and engage with the environment. So while playgrounds definitely aren’t bad, I think they often fall a bit short of the ideal.

Solutions to the Playground Conundrum

It’s nice to go places where there will be other children and parents. Toddler N. especially has become more sociable and I have seen him engaging in parallel play while we’ve been out recently, and I certainly want to give him lots of opportunities that the playground affords socially. Because of this, I can’t completely give up on going to the playground (especially while we have such a tiny backyard!). I have found a few workarounds, though, that make things a little bit easier.

Go with another adult

I’m much more enthusiastic about the playground if I’m meeting another mom. Even though she has her own child or children, it’s still two people who can be in two places, meaning we can canvas the playground more easily. There’s an unspoken, but fantastic rule that says you will keep the children nearest you safe, even if they aren’t your own. I always feel better with two pairs of eyes. I also like to try to go to the playground when my husband is able to join us. Right now that means we have a 1:1 child to adult ratio which feels quite luxurious!

Seek out natural play spaces

I love natural play spaces for so many reasons, but one is that the risks seem less risky. If my toddler climbs a log, it’s probably not going to be as high as that ladder he climbed last week. If he climbs a tree, there are very few ways to get down and it’s easier to anticipate where I need to be physically if he needs my help. Plus, natural play spaces are rich opportunities for exploration. G. isn’t climbing on things because he’s busy feeling the grass or poking the mud. N. is looking for sticks and creepy crawlies, finding rocks and poking at the bark on trees. There are loose parts, adventures to be had, and a dynamic, changing environment to learn about.

Playgrounds can be lovely places, especially with the growing trend to bring in more natural elements and varied terrain. I also appreciate the social aspect for both my children and myself; however, at this stage in the game, the playground is a two-adult job in order to have a really enjoyable time. Where do you take your kids out to play?

Having fun is hard work.

Sometimes a trip to the playground is all work and no play.

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