Today I want to talk about playground anxiety. . .
Occasionally parents will ask a me a leading question like, “Dr. Boucher, isn’t it important for Timmy to eat their vegetables so they can grow healthy and strong?” I can tell that the parents are looking for me to give their child a short lecture, so usually I play ball. I’ll tell them they should eat their vegetables and go to sleep when they’re supposed to, but this time a parent brought their four year old in and asked this:
“So, Dr. Boucher, to be safe and have fun, we only go DOWN the slide, right?
I paused for a second and considered my options, thinking about the last few times we’ve gone to the park as a family. I asked Timmy, “Is it fun to go down the slide? Fun to go up the slide? How do we be safe on the slide?” We talked about taking turns, not pushing, waiting till all other friends are off the slide, and I told Timmy it seemed like he was already being safe on the slide.
Instead of focusing on the rules, let’s just focus on being safe around others. I think it’s okay to go down the slide or up the slide.
The discussion made me think. . . When we were new parents, we were hypervigilant on playground and in the backyard. It was stressful for me and my wife, and so much less fun for our child because we’re watching them and putting our hands behind him for every moment.
Really what kids are doing out there is learning about their environment and their capabilities. So without instructions, they see this big piece of colored plastic and think, “I’m gonna go up this!” Even without your hands a foot behind them as they climb, they have fun as they figure it out.
After watching my son play more and more I realized, what’s the worst that could happen?
Obviously he could fall, but he could fall going down the slide too. . . If he stumbles or gets stuck he is on a slide afterall,and gravity will help him see how a slide actually works and how gravity works, too. Another kid could show up at the top, and he’d figure out what to do or have a tumble with that child and then realize that’s how slides works.
What other things could happen?
He could get hurt exploring his world, but that’s really just part of childhood and a part of understanding our own limitations– and he could get hurt playing inside, too! Being outside
is just a better chance to allow your kids to learn about their environment and have a little more risk.
We, as parents, can’t protect our kids from all ouchies– and we shouldn’t try to. Getting ouchies is how we as children and adults figure out the limitations of our world and how to continue living in the world remaining safe. When we get an ouchie, we realize how it really works, and how we should try another way to avoid that for next time.
Without the ouchies, kids won’t learn to explore, or to adapt.
So back to the dad in the room with the four year old… I went through all this with Timmy and his dad, not really sure how the dad would take it. Unsurprisingly, Timmy was over the moon that he got permission to go up the slide. I look to his dad, expecting to get a lecture of my own, but he just takes out his phone and says, “Hold on I’m going to call my wife. Can you to say everything you just said again to her?”
It made me realize, a lot of times we are seeking permission to sit back and just let our kids play rather than feeling like we have to be a hawk or a helicopter parent micromanaging every moment, play opportunity or fight. If you just wait and give kids the chance, they will do well within the boundaries you set for them. Then we can sit back on the bench and chat with our spouse or friends and take in the moment of our kids enjoying their world.
The next thing parents ask me about is STICKS. Oh man do parents try to get me to give lectures on playing with sticks– and I just won’t do it. Sticks are a normal part of a kid’s world. I mean, who didn’t love playing with sticks as a kid (and teenager and twenty-something)?
When parents bring it up, I see it as another time to set boundaries and open up a discussion. I’ll ask the kid if they know how to play safely with sticks, establishing not to run with them, jab other people in the face, etc. If you can talk through those basic safety measures, I think it’s okay to sit back and let them play with sticks. It will be yet another opportunity for them to work out conflict with each other, trial and error in play and figure even more out about their environments.
You’ll be amazed at how resourceful and creative your child can be when they’re in charge. Let them experience the good and ouchie parts of the world, I think they’ll surprise you. And, you’ll get a lot more enjoyment sitting on the sidelines at the playground instead of constantly interjecting in their playtime.