Playgrounds are a great thing. They encourage active, outdoor play in a comfortable setting and provide hours upon hours of entertainment to millions of kids. We have had countless fun playdates at tons of playgrounds and have actively sought out new ones through frantic Googling on long road trips. Playgrounds definitely have a place in our outdoor-loving hearts, so it might surprise you a little bit to hear that it’s a place of love-hate conflict.
You see, my kids love playgrounds. But me, I just don’t. I think we can do better.
In fact, when a friend in my mom group suggested that in lieu of our usual summer Sunday playground meet-ups, we explore some new green spaces together, my heart swelled about three sizes. (Solidarity, you-know-who!) I have facilitated a few of these green space meet ups in the past, and I have to say I find them so much more fun than the playground. Why not move your next playdate away from the playground too?
Here are five reasons to give it a try.
1. The awkward playground social dynamics. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not entirely antisocial. I’m happy to bring my kids to swimming lessons and the gym and to school and play dates. We have done tons of mommy-and-me type activities, but they usually have some kind of official facilitator or at least pre-agreed-upon rules. The playground tends to be a complete free-for-all of conflicting parenting approaches. There will be a mommy there who will follow my two-year-old with an outstretched hand, nervously spotting him from behind as he agilely scales the rope ladder. She will glance around pointedly, trying to determine who is responsible for this blatantly risky behavior and I will look at the clouds and pretend I don’t know. Don’t worry though, he’s been climbing that ladder since he was 17 months old. That mommy is just so used to helicoptering that her helicoptering cup runneth over and she feels responsible for helicoptering over other children too.
On the other end of the spectrum there will be a child who is a complete jerk and seems to be completely unattended. She will probably push someone’s little brother down the slide just as he’s getting settled at the top. She will shove past another kid on the stairs. She will elbow her way between my son and the monkey bars, his fingers two centimeters from wrapping around the first rung, and announce, “I was just about to use these.” And as my son helplessly looks at me with pleading eyes, I will be scanning for the one other mommy on the bench whose head is craned down towards her phone but who is peaking up from behind her long bangs, eyes squinted at us to see how we’re going to play this.
Then there’s the kid who sits planted at the bottom of the slide. It’s hard to tell whether he’s trying to piss people off or he’s just completely oblivious. There’s an older kid lurking around the bushes with a Spiderman mask on, popping up to startle toddlers and then disappearing again like a demonic jack-in-the-box. The list goes on and on. Sometimes I think that playgrounds are just where parents go to pretend that they don’t know their own kids.
2. Playgrounds don’t encourage creativity. Yes you can maybe straddle the swing, or twist it up and then whirl in circles, but let’s be honest, there are far fewer ways to play with a swing on a playground than there are to play with a stick in the middle of the forest. Is it too much to ask that our kids use their imaginations today? Do we really have to go to the boat-shaped playground for them to act out their wild pirate games? When I was a kid I had to create the pirate playscape from scratch (you know, after I walked six miles through the snow to school, uphill both ways). I would far rather watch my kids turn a forest clearing into a “home” complete with kitchen, bed and bath, than see them serve up pretend ice cream over the pre-fab plastic counter of the molded playground ice cream stand. And lately, playgrounds seem to have become more and more involved. They used to consist of a climbing structure, a slide and some swings. How did we get from there to here?
3. They are too safe. Let me go on record for a second here and say, I’m all for safety! I love safety. I’m a safety advocate. Safety, safety, safety! But as I’ve noted before, I want my kids to learn how to manage risks so that they will be safer outdoors long term, and if they play only in environments in which those risks are managed for them, they will never learn to gauge their own safety. Recently I sat on a bench next to a mother who drew sharp, pointed breaths every time our kids reached the top platform at our local playground.
“That open rail at the top of the ladder there just scares me,” she said to me, shaking her head.
I smiled. “Well look on the bright side. If he throws himself off that thing, he won’t make that mistake twice.”
“You’re right, I never thought of it that way!” she laughed.
4. The hyper contagion. Maybe it’s the sheer number of little people in a confined space. Maybe it’s their combined knowledge that they are here to have LOTS OF FUN. Maybe it’s a kiddy conspiracy to make me lose my mind. Whatever the reason, kids go absolutely bonkers at the playground. Mine always seem to get caught right up in the chaos and run around in the middle of the sugar-rabid pack, screaming and bumping into one another. This on its own wouldn’t be so bad but the pack mentality usually results in what I would call VERY POOR CHOICES. The last time we were at the playground, the kiddy pack found a pile of sticks, only they were closer to logs than sticks. Each child grabbed (at least) one and proceeded to run as fast as he could while bashing the log into anything within log’s reach. They were taking full-strength baseball swings at playground equipment sending out an explosion of splinters with each hit. When we put an end to this game, they found one of those long metal gates that goes across a driveway to keep vehicles out. You know the ones, the long metal boom that extends at exactly kid-height? They began to push it around and around until it gained its own momentum and they had to flee at low levels in real terror before they were knocked unconscious. See the problem here? Playgrounds on their own are too safe. My bored kids in a pack mentality at the playground are too reckless. Can’t a mom catch a break!
5. We always leave worse off than when we arrived. This follows from the above hyper contagion. No matter the amount of prep I do, talking in advance about how long we’ll stay, offering plenty of warnings before it’s time to go, bribes, threats, etc, I always leave with crying children. Always. Even if no one gets hurt, they always reach their breaking point one way or another. The hyper contagion boils over and they come crashing down.
Don’t get me wrong, we will continue to go to playgrounds. We will continue to participate full force in this insanity, but I do so halfheartedly. I sometimes want my kids to get the chance to choose our destinations, and that often means the playground. I sometimes want to meet friends on mutual territory, and that often means the playground. I sometimes want to be able to sit and talk with a friend while our kids run around in a confined space, and that often means the playground. But I also want my kids to explore freely, to experience wilderness, to stretch their imaginations and their physical limits, and I find that there are far better spaces for this than the playground.
Next time you’re planning to meet friends for some outdoor fun, consider a hike, a nature walk or a farm visit instead. You just may start a new tradition.