I've seen a lot of chatter about playgrounds in my newsfeed lately. Remember the iPhone Mom and the frenzy of posts that followed from both critics and supporters? Now it seems every time I open up Facebook there is yet another article or blog about parents, kids, and outdoor play.
The logic I typically see goes something like this: Kids need free play without parental interference. They need to be able to navigate their own social circles, test their own physical abilities, and interact with peers and adults without mom-helicopter or dad-helicopter hovering around. Sounds good, in theory, doesn't it?
Except when it doesn't. Keep reading long enough and you'll find just as much "evidence" to support the other side.
We watch them too closely. No, we don't watch them carefully enough. Parents should leave their kids alone at the playground. For goodness sakes, aren't you watching your kids at the playground? Children need time to be with others their own age to learn social skills. Why are you sitting on the sidelines instead of teaching your kids social skills? Don't help or praise your kids on the jungle gym. Heavens, can't you see your kid needs some assistance and encouragement on the jungle gym?
So, what's a concerned parent to do? Sit back and watch? Or stay close and supervise? Leave them alone? Or play alongside?
Luckily, I have the answer to your playground and park dilemma: know. your. child.
Some kids thrive on the independence. They can't wait to ditch their parents at the park entrance and run off to find new friends. They might check in every once in a while just to see what you're doing or to ask for water, but for the most part they are in their own world. Bring your Kindle, open a good book, and relax. They'll find you when they need you.
Others might need mom or dad to stay with them until they feel more comfortable navigating the scene, especially at a new or unfamiliar place. After they've had a chance to warm up and/or talk to a few other kids, they will happily go in search of adventure while you fade into the background. Stay close, but step back when the opportunity presents itself.
Younger ones probably need more guidance simply because of safety concerns. I know some folks like to say that children will only test their natural limits, and won't do more than they are capable of, and they need to learn to trust themselves, blah blah blah. I'm convinced none of those people have ever actually had a toddler. Toddlers are fearless and will do crazy things without half a thought.
Sometimes they just want to play with you, and that's okay. They might be intimidated if surrounded by a lot of older kids. Perhaps it's your first visit and it's a bigger playground than what they are used to. Don't let this worry you. One day your timid three-year-old will be your six-year-old social butterfly. Your toddler will be pointing you the bench saying "mama sit here" before you blink. Go with it, and follow their lead.
And you know what? These hypothetical scenes are all correct. There is no "incorrect" way to take your kids to the park. Don't assume that because someone is not approaching it the way you would they are doing it wrong.
If you're an on-the-sidelines parent, don't assume the dad standing close by his five-year-old daughter is helicoptering because you'd be more hands-off by that age. If you are one to be right in the midst of your children's play, don't assume the mom checking her e-mail is uncaring or ignoring them. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they are doing what they feel works best for their child. Just as you'd want someone to do for you.
Then of course there's the other thousand scenarios that you know nothing about and have no right to judge. Maybe the Dad who is swinging alongside his kids just got home from deployment and hasn't seen them in a year. Maybe the mom at the slide is "fussing" over her three-year-old because he just got out of his cast this week and she's a little nervous. Perhaps the woman glazed over talking on her phone seemingly not paying attention just got the worst news of her life.
The next time you're at the park with your kids, simply approach it in a way that works for them. And drop any judgment at the gate.