Five Steps To Better Playground Behavior

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Once upon a time, I dreaded going to the park with both children. Everything was just peachy when Brother would sleep in the baby carrier, or simply lay on a blanket in the shade. But once he started walking, it felt like I was spinning in circles trying to make sure both children were safe and having fun. On top of this, I struggled with how to approach playground rules like the great slide debate, and sharing sand toys when I prefer to "sportscast" toy struggles at home. 

These last few months, we've really hit our stride and are enjoying the park so much more, and I'd love to share a few secrets I've learned. 

1. Choose A Fenced In Playground -When I was just watching my daughter who always stayed close by, I never considered needing a fenced park. However, Brother is what you may call a "runner" - and will run away as fast as he can the minute you look away. It's scary! I feel instantly relieved if there's a fenced playground, which means I can relax more and keep him safe. Bringing balls and sand toys also keeps his mind off of running. Just make sure other families are closing the gate when they come and go. If I can't go to a fenced playground, then I'll choose a playground with very few people and that makes watching him easier. 

2. Allow Children To Direct Their Own Play - Child-directed play is the play that happens when children choose what delights them, and make their own rules for how to play. There are many benefits and my family has found so much joy in these opportunities. This means I don't tell them what to play with on the playground and how to play with it. I don't invent games or suggest what I think is fun. Instead, they figure things out for themselves and freely decide how they'd like to spend their time. I always sit at a bench or stand close by, and I might acknowledge what they are doing when they look to me - "Yes, you went down the slide very fast! You look proud of yourself," for example. Sometimes I say nothing at all and I try to honor their own experience. Though, I usually push them on the swings when they ask, I generally connect with them through simply observing at the park, and connect with them even further during caregiving times

3. No Need To Lift Children On Equipment - Sister has been wanting to learn the monkey bars for the last 6 months. She started with 1 bar, and now she's made it to to 4 bars. She's determined to learn and looks so proud of herself each time she gets to another bar! It's enough to make my heart turn to mush. Though, what may seem unconventional is that I've never helped her by holding her as she crosses. When another parent has helped her across, I feel embarrassed and start to doubt myself. But I know through experience that if I help her across, she will rely on me to help her many more times, and that will take away from her building the confidence to learn it on her own. It also takes my attention away from watching both children, and that can be dangerous. 

What I often say is: If you can safely climb up something yourself, then most likely you will be safe climbing down yourself. Therefore, I won't lift you in places you can't get to yet. Most days both children understand this rule of mine, and some days they beg me for help. In this case, I'll help them in the least intrusive way possible, so that they can achieve it the most independently as possible. For example, instead of holding her across all the monkey bars, I'll stay close and support her back so she feels safer crossing on her own and jumping down. When Brother climbs a ladder like it's no big deal (but I'm a nervous wreck he'll fall), I'll stay close by and spot him without interfering. 

Now when we are at the park, both children do what they are capable of doing, and will try new things when they feel ready, because "Readiness is when they do it". They also never have a false sense of security of being able to do things they aren't ready to do yet, which is a real comfort to me. I've seen children fall down playground stairs that they were helped up to climb in a well meaning- way. I wonder if they climbed up the stairs themselves (with a parent close by), figuring out their own movements, where their own hands and feet may go to reach the top safely, if fewer accidents could happen. 

4. Set Expectations Before You Arrive & Set Limits As Needed - Before we arrive at the park, I usually explain to both children that while I support them problem solving their own toy struggles at home, at the park the play structures are shared and I'm also not going to let them take toys out of someone else's hands. We also discuss how climbing up a slide is fine sometimes. However, if the playground is crowded or someone is coming down, then the only option is to wait or go up the stairs. I find this conversation sets them up for success, and they are better able to relax and enjoy themselves knowing the "park rules." 

Even though I let my children direct their own play and even climb up an empty slide, that doesn't mean that I'm not setting limits as needed. Setting limits for safety ("I'm not going to let you throw sand, keep it down low"), and also stopping children from hitting or hurting one another is super important!

5. Give A "You have 5 minutes to do 1 last thing" Warning. I heard a mom say this once and I thought it was brilliant. Her children did their last fun thing (usually the slide. It's always the slide!), and they left without complaint. This nearly works every time for us, but I find that if I get caught up talking during the 1 last thing time, it turns into 42 more things, and it's much harder to leave. 

I'm working on, with calm confidence, respectfully helping them to leave if they are having trouble leaving. I'll acknowledge how much fun they are having and how I can see that would make it tough to go. Then I say, "we can hold hands and leave or you can walk on your own." If someone is particularly tired or hungry (oh it's so hard!), then I firmly hold their hand or pick them up, and usher them to the car as calmly as I can muster. If you have a secret to leaving the park on a tough day, I'd love to know! It's such tricky territory. 

Mamas, I'd love to know, what are your secrets to taking your children to the park and keeping your cool? 

With love and respect,