It was the apologies that caught Lisa Ferland off guard. Apologies from other mothers. Lots of them.
Ferland, an American who lives in Stockholm, Sweden, was enjoying her coffee while her two kids romped at a playground in Hoboken, New Jersey, during a family trip back to the States.
“It appeared that my mothers-in-arms were trying to keep things neat and orderly, apologizing when something wasn’t perfect, and thus stopping and redirecting their children’s play to something deemed socially acceptable by the mother,” Ferland wrote in The Wall Street Journal’s Expat blog.
Except the playground playmates were doing what Swedish kids do without the slightest blinka of a grownup’s eye: throwing sand, splashing in water, and acting, um, like kids.
“Parenting on eggshells?”
It’s a jungle out there on the jungle gyms. Just listen to what moms are saying on the subject:
“She sat on the bench for an hour without interacting with her daughter once.”
“Why is it my responsibility to make sure everybody else’s kid takes turns and shares?”
“I can’t relax because I feel so judged. Is my kid too wild? Am I reacting fast enough? I wish it was more fun, but really? I kind of dread going.”
Have we really let mom-shaming ruin the very thing playgrounds are meant to promote: a place for kids to burn off energy, work those gross motor skills, and make friends?
Maybe part of the trouble is that the line between parental protection, overprotection, and blissful ignorance on playgrounds is in squiggles. There’s a lot of confusion about what’s okay on swings and in sandboxes. The result: What Ferland calls “parenting on eggshells”—a pre-emptive fear of being reprimanded for any perceived wrongdoings by our children.
“It may blow your mind to find out how aggressive, critical, and judgmental some of the moms will be,” one mom counseled a newbie in a social thread on the subject of playground etiquette. “If a mom unleashes her fury on you for not parenting ‘right’—ha—try to blow it off.”
Good luck with that.
Maybe what we all need are some new rules that put play first and ease up a little on making parents feel responsible for every tiny less-than-fully-civilized detail of what that play looks like. The best part: This is actually in kids’ best interests!
A good place to start, child development experts say, is to promote these five playground practices. Kids desperately need them, no apologies necessary.
1. Yes to disorganized running around
If a kid can’t exert a little on a playground, then where?
Yet running, cartwheels, and handstands are among the activities that have been banned on some playgrounds. Even the words to describe this kind of play—roughhousing, horseplay—now make a lot of people nervous. You’d think wrestling was gladiator combat and the kids playing chase were galloping bareback.
Sure, “someone might get hurt.” Don’t ditch common sense about what’s age-appropriate. With a wobbly and preverbal toddler, for example, of course you want to keep a closer eye in a herd of Big Kids.
But when did we lose our sense of balance? What happened to mastering that mom thing of reading and simultaneously looking up every so often?
Err too far on the side of too much caution about short-term risks, and kids miss out on lots of long-term benefits. At a time when one in three kids is overweight, the physical exertion, freedom, interactivity, and sheer joy of free play are worth the (very real) possibility of bumped heads, skinned knees, and blood. Kids are wired to move fast and crazy.
In fact, both their bodies and their brains need to run, chase, wrestle, fall over, and play-fight, say Anthony DeBenedet (a doctor) and Lawrence Cohen (a psychologist) in their ode to rowdy play, The Art of Roughhousing. Many experts believe that too little active play is contributing to the uptick in sensory, motor, and cognitive problems. And what parent doesn’t love this: By revving up, kids also learn how to calm down, say DeBenedet and Cohen.
2. Yes to arguing—and working things out
Put more than one child in the same space, and there may be quibbles, hurt feelings, and, yep, maybe even tears. It looks like noisy chaos when you’re not in the middle of it—but we’re not meant to be. Kids get enough close adult attention at youth sports, church, and school.
Free play, the kind playgrounds are for, means mostly adult-free. That is, the way most of today’s parents once got to play.
Backing off gives kids practice cooperating, collaborating, and rule-making; develops their creativity; builds emotional intelligence; and even shores up self-defense skills. “By playing regularly with other kids—playing freely—kids gain social skills that become a natural deterrent to bullying,” says Hara Marano, a Psychology Today editor and author of Why Doesn’t Anybody Like Me? A Guide to Raising Socially Confident Kids, in a great Journal of Playinterview. Left to themselves on playgrounds, kids learn how to handle disruptions, negotiate disputes, dispel problems, be assertive, and detect and avoid kids who cause problems. It’s how they learn to adapt, she says.
Too Lord of the Flies for you? Coach your kid on basic courtesies ahead of time: We go down the slide, not up it if others are waiting to do down. No hitting. Wait your turn. Then, while you’ll want to keep an eye out for uber danger, resist micromanaging. Hang back to let your child take a try at working through a situation (like telling another child to go to the end of the line) before stepping in to organize it, Marano suggests. When you do step in, model a better way: “Jack, wouldn’t it be nice if you let Ava try to ride your tricycle to the tree and back, then you can have it?” With this kind of help, kids learn that they can solve their own problems—and develop confidence.
3. Yes to playing in the dirt
Kids know instinctively: No matter how colorful the play structures, mulch, sand, and grass are even better. Yes, it will get thrown, because that’s how they explore and enjoy it. (Look, it’s a waterfall! An airplane! A sword!) And if the stuff winds up in hair, toes, or diapers? Let it. Hold off on the hand sanitizer.
All that grime isn’t merely harmless; it’s helpful. Mucking around in dirt works fine motor skills and aids creative thinking. Unconvinced? It’s even healthy: Using data on 1,700 European farm children, scientists recently found the link that makes the “hygiene hypothesis” real. That’s the thinking that our modern compulsion for clean is making kids sick, while those exposed to the wider world of microbes and germs wind up with lower levels of asthma and allergy. It turns out that dust actually triggers an inflammatory response that makes the immune system stronger.
4. Yes to taking risks
It only takes about 30 seconds around the slides, swings, trees, and monkey bars to know that kids are as hardwired for risky business as we mothers are averse to watching it. Norwegian researchers have categorized six kinds of risky play that kids everywhere love: great heights, rapid speeds, dangerous tools, dangerous elements (fire, water), rough-and-tumble activities, and disappearing/getting lost (hide-and-seek, venturing off from grown-ups).
Tools and fire aside (at least on a playground!), child development experts say taking those risks brings real, long-term rewards. Kids gain confidence and bravery, learn their limits, overcome phobias, and practice regulating emotions, like fear and anger. All of which makes them feel good about themselves. This alone explains why they don’t hear your well-intentioned chorus of becarefulbecareful.
Ironically, when playgrounds have been made super-safe, kids are often too discouraged and bored to use them, some research shows, or else use them in ways not intended, increasing injuries.
5. Yes to outside voices
HEY! GUESS WHAT?! Playgrounds are LOUD PLACES! And that’s a good thing. We so often have to remind kids to use inside voices. At the playground, however, they’re outside. HOORAY! Decibel-busting whoops are another way kids blow off steam.
As for the moms and dads, our voices—whether soft or loud—are best kept to background noise. A gentle reminder here or there? If you must. A little modeling of kindness, sharing, and common courtesy? Absolutely. A sharp “STOP” at the aforementioned brink of danger? Sure.
Let’s pay enough attention that we react when truly needed but not so much that we step on toes, nerves, or developmental needs. So how about it? Can we all agree to let kids be kids—no apologies necessary?