thinking outside the playground

thinking outside the playground - Heirloom Mothering
View from one of the local playgrounds in the woods

I live in a dense suburban neighborhood named “The Heights,” so called for its perch on a gigantic granite slab. The primary boast of this area is its unparalleled view overlooking Boston. Our small sloping back yard, virtually no front yard, and lack of personal space result in frequent excursions to local playgrounds.

thinking outside the playground - Heirloom Mothering

With an occasional rare exception, our town has standardized and regulated the equipment located at these spaces to a sterilized state. The town recently chose to dismantle one of the last of the old-school metal playgrounds, complete with too-high monkey bars and boiling-hot slide. It is currently being renovated.

That I would complain about such an upgrade probably says something about my spoiled nature, but hear me out. The primary reason for my dismay is I had noticed the teens congregating there. You know, these kids could use more places away from grown-ups to loiter and discuss the opposite sex. I wrote about this playground not long after we moved here (see here), and it seems even then I had a hunch it wouldn’t be  long for this world:

I’m actually quite surprised the powers that be haven’t swung by to collect it all. The monkey bars are one giant cage that rises about 20 feet in the air, and the slide is a rickety, dinged up, old metal contraption that heats to an ungodly temperature in the summer. It makes me nostalgic for the playgrounds of my youth, back when we had seesaws and merry-go-rounds of death. Those were the days.

thinking outside the playground - Heirloom MotheringI suppose I could look on the bright side. Removal of the type of playgrounds I grew up with does afford me a certain “Back in my day” rant that I already seem to love so much. And hey, perhaps this banality is a blessing in disguise, for it forces my girls to think outside the playground to encounter new experiences.

When we arrive at the park, they run over to their favorite slide or swing and play on it for a short while. But then after a few minutes, they’ll hightail it to the woods surrounding the playground to find the perfect stick and rock for their collection or to play hide and seek. Their unbridled glee in exploring their surroundings makes my heart sing from my distant post on a bench or rock. I’ll close my eyes and be whisked back to my own childhood by the familiar smells and sounds of dirt and adventure.

Yesterday we went to a local swimming hole. But instead of swimming, the girls ran right over to a playground and stayed there the entire visit. They tested themselves on the two relic structures left, the highest of monkey bars and the rickety swings, and we were able to ignore them and have a few hours of peace.

I wandered over once to remind them of the boundaries. As usual, on my walk back to our spot farther down the beach, I could see the helicopter moms who were right up in their kids’ business side-eyeing me. I smiled silently and continued on to our blanket, knowing what they were thinking but just not caring. I mean, it’s a fenced-in playground at a swimming hole teeming with lifeguards and parents. I can barely imagine a safer spot, and yet parents still chase after their kids here. What gives?

Back in June, I shared my concerns about our parenting culture’s current obsession with risk aversion. I’m reading Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids with the hope that delving into the topic in more depth will give me something to do about it.  So far it’s both interesting and maddening, just as I’d imagined it’d be. I’ve also joined the Children & Nature Network, a movement focused on getting kids playing outside.

My curiosity took me online in search of what the federal government identifies as an acceptable level of risk. A quick lit review didn’t turn up much; while there are standards for families who have been afflicted with substance abuse and domestic violence, it’s more difficult to find an intentional guide to making childhood not more safe, but less safe.

One such place doing this difficult work is a country whose goal is to become “the best place to grow up,” the United Kingdom. Their risk assessment implementation guide gives pointers on how to “strike the right balance between protecting our children from harm and allowing them the freedom to develop independence.”

That’s what parenting is all about, right? Striking a balance between protection and independence. When it comes to play, I steer toward independence as much as I can.

After all, “to play is, intrinsically, to not do exactly what the grown-ups say,” notes Christina Schwartz in an article by The Atlantic urging us to leave our kids alone (not that article by the Atlantic, another older one). “Children,” she says, “have a knack for simply living that adults can never regain.”

Amen, sister.

thinking outside the playground - Heirloom Mothering
The kids, riding away from me. In 10 years, they’ll be riding away from me again, only in bigger vehicles.
thinking outside the playground - heirloom mothering
Hey Ma, look how high I can climb!

Update (9-8-14): I am going to have to eat my words this time. We have been to the renovated playground several times, and it is beyond any of my possible expectations. There are even somewhat dangerous elements (I overheard one mom bemoan to her husband, “There are REAL rocks!” in reference to hear fears for her child’s safety. Really, lady?), like a (fake) boulder wall that includes spider-like rope webbing to another boulder. There’s also a track that runs around the perimeter, on which I have already seen one child practicing biking without training wheels. It’s adorable, it’s fantastic, and I was wrong. I love my town for being able to see the potential I could not. 

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2 thoughts on “thinking outside the playground

  1. I feel you! It is such a balance between independence and safety. When my girls were just old enough to use a playground, we were stationed in Germany and it was a time when being identified as an American could get you some kind of confrontation. When we got there we had to provide hand and footprints to the Military Police of our children in case there was situation which required an evacuation. There were directions that stated if an evacuation occurred we were not to go to the schools to pick up our children, that they would be gathered up and taken to the evacuation points and we would meet up with them there. Scary! Even with all of this heightened alert, there were parents who would let their young children wander where they wanted to out of eyesight of the parents. We lived in an un-gated housing area adjacent to a German community. Anyone could come and go unchecked. During that time I never let my children out of my sight. When they were a bit older we moved to the small town where I had graduated from high school. A very safe community. A place where it takes a bit longer to do your grocery shopping since you always run into people you know and everyone wants to chat. Needless to say, my girls had free range within the town limits. And this was before cell phones too. There were many times that I wouldn’t know exactly what they were doing until they got home and told me. Though one major perk to a small town was summed up in the time when I was at the grocery store with my daughter, we ran into a friend of hers and I overheard her friend ask her why she wasn’t in school that day. I got to turn around and ask my daughter, yeah, why weren’t you in school today? Love small towns! 🙂 Anyway, I rambled, sorry, the point I was making though was, it is all situational. If you feel a sense of safety you will probably let the kids roam farther from your side, but if you feel unsafe then the apron strings will be much shorter. We all have differing levels of how safe we feel and we respond in our actions to those feelings.

    1. That’s very interesting, Rita. I love how you framed the juxtaposition of your two experiences. I think you’re right that much of our actions depend on whether we’re coming from a perspective of love or fear of our surroundings. Come to that, perhaps it’s my view as an outsider coming to Boston that makes me less protective. I didn’t grow up here and thus don’t know all the various stories the locals heard growing up–whatever kidnappings, murders, or accidents might have taken place are out of my mind, so I’m able to approach my decisions with less fear. I never considered that possibility! I’ve heard similar stories about Germany, by the way. A friend at church has a sister-in-law living in Berlin, and on a recent trip she witnessed her write her phone number on her 4-year-old son’s arm with a sharpie pen and send him out into a crowd at an evening neighborhood block party. I simply can’t imagine doing that here.

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