I didn’t like playgrounds as a kid and I certainly don’t enjoy them now as a mother. I blame the movie, Kramer vs. Kramer for instigating my lifelong playground paranoia. In an unforgettable scene, the boy playing Dustin Hoffman’s son falls off the monkey bars onto the very unsafe concrete. He runs to his son (too late), scoops his bloody body and runs with him for a dozen blocks to the emergency room.
When I first embarked upon the playground world, I was my son’s shadow. We went down the slide together, we built in the sandbox, and we chased each other in a captivating game of tag. I cherish those memories and my teenager has no recollection of them.
The playground inflames my otherwise dormant imagination. I envision possible worst-case scenarios with every attraction. The monkey bars, the slide-down pole, the tire swing are ticking time bombs and yet children play with reckless abandonment while I gasp at every misstep.
As a child, I preferred to sit on the green wooden bench keeping my mother company rather than frolic in the concrete jungle for kids. I didn’t like making the first move with other kids. I never understood the inclination towards swinging on monkey bars; I left it to the animals and preferred the solo (safer) flight on a swing, where I controlled how fast, how high and when I got off. There were too many opportunities to fail (not make friends or fall). I didn’t want to follow other kids around who seemed to be playing “stupid” games. The threat of every Lord of the Flies scenario presented itself at every corner. Worst of all, there seemed to be no governing rules other than “no bike riding, loud music playing, or exposing yourself.”
Without rules, children behave like wild animals released from cages.
My daughter is now five years old and absolutely LOVES the playground. Of course. For the first few years, I hovered just as I had with my son, maybe even more. Finally, I realized she was on this exact school playground every day during recess with no teacher lingering around her, and I relaxed on the bench as she risked her life all over the place.
You can learn a lot about a child by watching them at the playground. Some sit passively in a sandbox methodically pushing around a matchbox car. Others wrangle a team together into a mission taking them around the climbing structure and across the shaky bridge. Some kids climb UP the slide. I tell my daughter not to climb upwards and get annoyed as other mothers disregard how their kids are DOING IT THE WRONG WAY!
Today I had a spark of appreciation for the playground. Instead of sitting on the edge of the bench, muscles tensed, jaw tight, craning my neck to watch my daughter’s every movement, I listened to my husband who said, “I allow you to not watch her.” He said he would not blame me if someone stole her so I allowed myself to sit back into the bench, the sun on my face and observe. The playground presented itself to me as a live-action metaphor for life: to live with abandon, to soar through infinite possibilities on the power of your imagination, to introduce yourself to strangers and have an adventure together, to disagree on the rules but be fair and kind because we are born to empathize and connect and love.