Taking children to play outside of your home is always going to present some sort of challenge. There are so many variables to take into consideration that sometimes it feels like it would be better to stay inside and keep your kid in their own bubble to avoid the stress.
But then you’d end up with a super maladjusted kid who will turn into an absolute nightmare, so it’s best to just suck it up and brave the outside world sometimes.
As a mom to an only child, it is so important for me to get my kid out of the house so he can interact with his peers, have a chance to play cooperatively, and engage socially. I have discovered that playgrounds and our local public library are some of the best places for child-to-child interaction, and we frequent those places often. Our library has daily activities like story time, infant and toddler playgroups, movies and holiday-themed events, but it also has a children’s room where parents and their children can snuggle up and read books, play with a dollhouse or Legos, or use the computers. Spending time in the children’s open play areas and on the playground seems to be where the best lessons are learned — for both children and adults.
In a place where children of all ages are thrown together into a communal space to play and exist alongside of each other, there are going to be expectations placed on all of the children who choose to share the space. They aren’t always easy things to bypass; children will of course be children, but as a parent, it has been an absolutely eye-opening experience for me.
Sharing is an incredibly complex and complicated thing to navigate for children and parents. While some parents are quick to make their children share with those around them, others may not be or don’t enforce it as strongly, letting their children decide for themselves. For toddlers and preschool-aged children who are still learning the ins and outs of sharing, it can be frustrating because they’re just not able to grasp the concept yet. Being forced to give up a toy before they’re ready, or having a toy taken from them can lead to a puddle of tears or a tantrum that mom/dad then has to try to soothe.
The older kids, who already have grasped the concept, are often frustrated that they are being forced to play alongside children who don’t get it and will emulate the adults in their life who tell them things like, “We all have to share,” or “Everyone needs to have a turn.” Their tolerance for kids who don’t adhere to that rule is low, which leads to awkward confrontations at times.
The older kids in these spaces will begrudgingly allow the younger children to take part in their games or play alongside them, but then the older kids expect the younger kids to understand the rules and adhere to them in the same way they do. Younger children should know when to pass the ball or not to pick up the soccer ball with their hands.
Younger children expect to be included in all of the older kids’ activities without an invitation, often just inserting themselves into the center of the action. If they are shunned or not included, they will become upset and either pout in the corner or continue to insert themselves into the action until the older kids are forced to acknowledge their presence. This can be annoying for all parties involved, of course.
Respect for Mutual Space
When there are mixed aged groups playing in a communal space, like the playground, the need for spatial respect is crucial. It is dangerous for children to run through a space they are not currently a part of. If a small child runs into the middle of a game of tag or football, they can get hurt. It’s the same thing if an older child runs into the path of a kid on a swing; they can do major physical damage too. Children often don’t understand their own strength, and no one wants to end up in the hospital, so establishing appropriate boundaries and taking in their surroundings is something kids of all ages have to learn to navigate straight away.
These mutual play spaces are a valuable part of any community. They also, inevitably, bring about situations that will be somewhat uncomfortable to navigate for parents or kids. As a parent, it is so hard to step back when you see your child having any sort of confrontation with a child outside of their age group. It is especially true for parents of younger children who simply want to protect their babies from being hurt, physically or emotionally.
For me, the biggest hurdle has been knowing when to step in and when to let my son handle the situation on his own. It is so easy to speak for him, to explain to an older child that he is still little and doesn’t quite understand the things that come so easily to someone who has more years and experience. I have definitely pulled my son out of difficult situations because I knew I could not stay silent for one second longer, and no one likes being that mom out in public.
But as he gets older, I realize that I am not doing him any favors by fighting his battles for him. I have to be more picky. He has a voice, and he must begin to feel comfortable using it to assert his autonomy. That’s not to say that if I see a situation escalating that I won’t step in, because I absolutely will, whether or not my child is the one being picked on or the aggressor.
While it is crucial for children to learn how to handle these complex social situations, it is also important for them to know that their parents are there to protect and support them too. And I will always have his back.