I was the only single dad there; it was a couples and single moms kind of day, so I didn’t get the usual camaraderie of trading dad stories with other guys. (Although one mom did notice that her daughter and my daughter had the same shoes, and she asked me if they also made my daughter’s feet smell like death.) And since my little girl was busy playing with other children – and her daycare teacher – I had a little more freedom to roam around the edges and observe. There’s much I could write and reflect on, but what struck me most this past Saturday was the common theme in how the adults directed the play of their children. That common theme was “don’t.”
It started with the first couple whose boy was swinging next to my little girl. “Don’t lean forward in the swing like that,” they told him. “You’ll fall out.” Of course, he didn’t listen to them, and he continued to lean forward. And he didn’t fall out, because those toddler swings are pretty hard to fall out of. Then when he began squealing in delight – which also prompted my little girl to squeal out loud (parallel play!) – they said, “Don’t be so loud. Other people are sleeping.” I myself didn’t see anyone sleeping in the park, and the day I do will be the last day I take my child there to play.
Then as more children arrived and began playing on the jungle gym playground, more “don’t” themes emerged: “Don’t jump on the bouncing bridge!” “Don’t go up there until I get there!” “Don’t go down that slide by yourself!” “Don’t climb up the slide!” “Don’t play in the dirt!” “Don’t run!” (Really? Don’t run at the park?!)
I noticed all these overheard don’ts because they were all things I let my child do. My child jumped on the swinging bridge and ran all over the jungle gym without me and slid down the slide by herself and then tried to walk back up the same slide and then ran around until she settled on a dirt pile she wanted to play in. Oh, and she also leaned forward in the swing and yelled loud enough to wake up anyone sleeping in the park. I’m such a terrible parent! I let my child run around the park like an unruly hooligan playing with pretty much anything she wants!
A month ago, I wrote a post about raising playful children. The tension between setting boundaries and letting them play freely was on vivid display Saturday morning at the park. These other parents seemed very concerned about the appropriate boundaries of play for their children, and in nearly every case they seemed to be out of concern that their children would hurt themselves. These children were told not to do things that might cause them to fall or trip or run into things. Occasionally, there was redirection aimed at respecting other children – “Don’t push!” “Don’t go until it’s your turn!” – and at one point I told my daughter not to play with a toy that wasn’t hers. But the bulk of the don’ts seemed to come from a concern about the child’s safety (or cleanliness, as was the case with the child who was forbidden from playing in dirt, because we all know a little dirt won’t hurt).
Now, I can understand wholeheartedly the desire to protect your child from pain. I don’t like it when my daughter hurts herself, either. But I’ve discovered a few things about my child. The first is that she rarely hurts herself like I think she will. She’s actually pretty good at running and sliding and climbing and jumping. And you know how she got so good at running and sliding and climbing and jumping? By running and sliding and climbing and jumping. Funny how that works. If I prevented her from doing these things, she would actually be far more likely to hurt herself when doing them. So I just let her, and she usually does fine.
But sometimes she doesn’t. And that’s another important lesson I’ve learned: getting hurt isn’t all that bad. I mean, yeah, it hurts, which sucks. And she screams like a banshee being murdered with an icepick, which no parent likes. But she’s pretty resilient. All those parents trying to restrict their children’s play in the park that day probably looked at me and thought, “That dad lets his daughter do anything! I’ll bet she gets hurt.” And I would have to say to them, “Yes, you’re right. She gets hurt.” In fact, during this trip to the park on Saturday, she sustained both a knot on her forehead (running into a stair rail) and a bloody nose (pitching forward and hitting her face on the side of the slide). So those other parents are correct: if you let your children run free, they might hurt themselves. But that’s okay, I say.
Children need boundaries to keep them safe, but not necessarily pain- or injury-free. I will not let my child play in the street; that might get her killed. But I will let my child play on a playground. You know, it’s called a playground for a reason. The first American playground was built in San Francisco in 1887; in 1907 Teddy Roosevelt declared playgrounds a “fundamental need” and important “for every child as much as schools.” (See this wonderful article about the history of playgrounds in America.) Playgrounds serve the purpose of providing children with the boundaries they need to experience play as safe and engaging. Of course children can get hurt on playgrounds. They can get hurt anywhere. So don’t leave them unsupervised or unattended. But for crying out loud, if you’re not going to let your child play at all, don’t take them to a playground.
You see, I want my child to learn to explore for herself. I want her to experience freedom that’s just a little bit scary. I’m certainly not advocating putting my child in danger; I don’t leave her unattended on the playground, and if she’s navigating heights that might cause a serious injury if she fell, then I am underneath her to catch her. (You should see her climb the rock wall. She’ll get halfway up without help and she’s two!) But the ground is made of rubber, folks. The jungle gym is plastic, not metal. It’s designed to be as safe as possible. It’s designed to be played on. I really can’t think of a better, safer place to let my child run free, to broaden the boundaries wide enough so that she really can play on her own and make up her own rules and explore as she wants. And you know what? She knows her limits. She knows the slides she isn’t ready to slide down. She knows the bars she’s not big enough to climb and the heights that are too tall for her to scale. She may still need diapers, but she’s not an idiot.
As an educator, I firmly believe that no one learns anything inside their comfort zone. Play and exploration should have a slightly scary edge to it. Occasionally that means backing down. Many times have I seen my daughter sit to go down a slide at the park and then change her mind and come back down the stairs. That’s fine, too. But then there are the times she tries something scary and discovers new about what she can do. When she went down the steep curly slide Saturday and leaned forward, hitting her face against the side and busting her nose, I immediately scooped her up out of the slide and hugged her and comforted her. She wailed for about a minute and then, with blood still dripping down her nose, stopped crying and pointed at the slide for me to put her back on it. Which I did, and she completed her trip down the slide. So suck it, slide! Bloody nose or not, you can’t bully my child out of sliding you!
Children are resilient and intelligent and capable and curious. I believe all of these are things to encourage. Lest any parent think I’m suggesting you turn your children loose into the world to play with power tools, let me again reiterate the need for appropriate boundaries. There are places where, and things with, my child is not allowed to play. But I don’t think children need the constant hovering and restriction that I witnessed at the park this past week. My child is fond of saying “I do it” when she wants to do something for herself. And you know what she says when she’s done whatever it is she wants to do for herself? “I did it!” She says this with delight and pride. It’s how she learns to be the tough, feisty, capable little girl I want to raise. You may very well see us in the emergency room someday getting stitches or even a cast. But you won’t see me killing myself to protect her from her own growth. You probably won’t see my girl depending on others to do things for her. You probably won’t see her shying away from a challenge. And you probably won’t see her living a sheltered, sedentary, uncurious life.