The New, Hard Work of Play

My video

As a parent of two young children, I spend a lot of time at playgrounds. Most parents probably do. We’re certainly lucky to have some great ones where I live, but to be honest, I really don’t like going to them. In fact, I often hate it. It”s not that I don’t enjoy spending time with my kids, playing with them and doing all the normal things that parents are supposed to do. I love my kids dearly, but that doesn’t mean I want to spend every single minute with them.

And that’s where playgrounds come in. Maybe I’m getting nostalgic now that I’m closer to forty than thirty, but it seems that my childhood playground trips largely involved me hanging out with other kids, without any parental interference. In fact, I distinctly remember going to the playground by myself—without my parents—when I was about the same age as my oldest, who’s six. Granted, we lived in a small town that was mostly walkable, but the point is that I didn’t need my parents with me, guiding my every move to make sure I had a good time. In fact, it was the lack of supervision that made it fun. Going off on my own was probably good for my parents, too, since it allowed them some worriless free time away from children.

It’s not that way anymore. Going to the playground with kids involves constant supervision on the part of parents, supervision that is exhausting for all parties involved. Rather than being a place for play, where kids can get together with other kids free from the watchful eye of parental authority, the playground now largely just mirrors household organization in another space.

I observed this change this past weekend. There were, I would guess, about fifty kids at the neighborhood playground—but rather than making up games together or seeing who could get down the slide first, for the most part, they just “played” with their parents. It was an interesting, yet disconcerting scene: the members of each familial group interacting with each other, but not with anyone outside of their immediate circle.

Indeed, for the most part, the other groups present appeared to be a nuisance, intruders on the terrain of solitary, yet oddly public, family fun. The parents were, on the whole, protective, intent on establishing clear boundaries (“Be careful!,” “Watch where you’re going!,” “Slides aren’t made for climbing up!”). In response, the kids could only envision a morning governed by parental wishes (“Push me on the swing!,” “Play hide and seek with me!,” “Watch me do the monkey bars!”).

Let me be clear: I’m as guilty as the next parent, so I’m not trying to take the moral high ground here. And I’m certainly not knocking anyone who enjoys the structured back and forth of parent-child playground interaction. But I find it exhausting, and I would bet that most parents—and children—do, too.

I feel it, and I can see it on their faces. The parents, me included, rushing from one activity to the next, when all they want to do is sit on a bench for a while and have a normal conversation with another grown human being. The kids, looking for permission and approval, when they obviously would love to be left alone to do what they want, without guidance and, of course, criticism. They’d prefer, in other words, to climb the slide, without being told, “No!”

One might object that it’s important to keep an eye on things, so that no one gets hurt. It”s also important to teach children to behave properly. That’s why our kids need our constant attention, of course. Don’t misunderstand me, but it’s good for kids to get hurt now and then, and it’s good for parents to let their kids get hurt now and then. Besides, at most playgrounds, it’s virtually impossible to be seriously injured: the merry-go-rounds are now gone, all the edges are rounded, and the ground on which it all stands is akin to memory foam. There are, of course, exceptions, but exceptions should never determine the rule. As to teaching kids to behave properly, is it really that big of a deal to climb a slide?

All to say, perhaps we would all enjoy ourselves more—at the playground, but more generally as well—if we let kids be kids when and in the places they need to be kids, and parents be adults when and in the places they need to be adults. And that often involves both parties doing their separate things, without interference. Allowing that to happen is much better for the sanity of all involved, but also, I would argue, for everyone’s enjoyment.

* Photo: Children at play, from the collections of the State Library of NSW.

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