5 Playground Lessons I Never Knew I was Teaching

February 6, 2011 · 42 comments

Boy jumping off swing

Learning to fly

I never wanted to be THAT mom on the playground.

You know, the one who’s child hit the other one, took toys that weren’t his, or fell off something too high for them.

So I hovered — barking instructions — making sure my boys were polite and safe.

I thought it showed them how to make it in the world. I want them to get along with others. They need to learn how to be nice. I don’t want them to get hurt. They need to learn what can be dangerous.

Unfortunately, my good intentions had inadvertant lessons:

1. If you get bored, I’ll entertain you. I’d get to the playground with my boys, and plop them in the swings, where I’d push them for as long as they wanted.

My son will let me do this for hours. It’s addictive for both of us — he’s happy and laughing, and I get to watch him fly and soar. I used to think it was bonding time, where I showed him how much I loved him and spent quality time with him.

Then I realized he never wanted to get out and play without me. So I stopped pushing him. My husband thinks this is wacky and extreme, but my son will now play for hours . . . including imitating the older kids by climbing on the swings and pumping his legs . . . on his own.

2. You aren’t able to figure out problems without me. This was a really hard one for me to stop doing. I hate seeing my boys frustrated.

My older one, being younger and smaller than most of his playdate buddies, often ran into situations where he was scared, or not tall enough, or not coordinated enough to do what he wanted to do. I didn’t want him to be left out, so I’d lift him up, show him how, or carry him to catch up. I just wanted him to have fun . . . and started making him completely dependent on me.

So I stopped. And he began to make solutions that I never would have dreamed of.

3. Don’t take risks because you’ll get hurt. I’ve always been pretty good about this, because my boys have been blessed with pretty incredible balance. But if my oldest got higher than I was comfortable with, off I’d go, running across the playground, nervously standing beneath him, and pulling him off if he showed a hint of wobbling.

This has been a really tough one to stop, because I really don’t want to be the mother who brings my child to the emergency room with a broken arm. So I’m still careful, and I spot my boys if they find themselves in a precarious spot. But now I casually stroll over, and only watch them out of the corner of my eye. I want them to know that risks are good.

They might fall sometimes, and they’ll get banged up. But a few scratches and scrapes are worth them knowing it’s ok to keep pushing their limits.

4. What you’re interested in isn’t important. I often followed the lead of other parents I saw (because this is how we learn to be parents, obviously), and wouldn’t let my son throw toys off the play structures, or let him climb up the slide the wrong way. I didn’t want him to inconvenience others, or accidently hit someone. And then I realized how ridiculous this sounds.

It’s a playground, not a courtroom. They’re supposed to go crazy there, and be able to experiment and explore.

So off my son went to the big slide, four cars clutched in his little hands. He stood at the top to see what happened when his cars went down before him (they flew off the bend and crash-landed in a small pile off to the side).

It never would have crossed my mind to teach him the physics of Matchbox cars flying down a slide, but he that’s what he wants to learn, pushing them over and over to see where they launch and where they land. And those lessons are important as anything I could have come up with.

5. You can’t do it on your own. It was really, really painful to realize I was sending this message. Of all the things I want my son to have, confidence in his ability to do things is right up there.

There I was, at every conflict, every awkward moment, every time he stood at the bottom of the slide when someone else wanted to come down. I wanted to show him how to work things out, how to make friends, or how to get out of the way. And inadvertantly demonstrated how he needed me to get him out of every sticky situation he found himself in.

Learning new playground behaviors with my kids is really, really difficult. The peer pressure of the playground is sometimes overwhelming, especially when my boys are the ones acting agressive or demanding. Or they’ve just fallen off something and landed on their face, and they’re walking towards me screaming. It’s hard not to be self-conscious and feel like I’m the worst mom in the world.

But I keep reminding myself that I don’t want them to learn to do things differently just because people are watching, so I play nervously with my hair and sit on the sidelines. I intervene if they look like they’re going to be physically agressive, or if they’re really high, but otherwise I keep my butt glued to the bench.

It’s painful sometimes too see them get hurt, and embarassing when they take someone else’s toys, but I also get to see them do things that I never dreamed they could do — like sit on top of the monkey bars, legs swinging . . . or reaching out to slide down the fireman’s pole. Sometimes the best view really is from far away.

Photo Credit: wsilver, on Flickr

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