Connecting at the Playground

playground

Late last week, I took the girls to a playground at a park near our house. The evening weather was lovely and many families in our community found the pull of the playground to be irresistible.

Not long after we arrived, a woman brought two little girls who looked to be her granddaughters in through the playground gate. The woman settled in at a picnic table and continued on with a phone conversation via the ear piece nestled in her ear. This caused some manner of confusion for the little girls as they played nearby. From time to time, they would ask one another, “What? What did she say? Oh, she’s still on the phone. Okay.”

Not only have I observed this situation at nearly every play space (both indoor and outdoor) I’ve been to in the past four years, I’ve engaged in it myself. The playground offers a brief respite from the consuming work of raising children. On the comfy benches that encircle shopping mall playgrounds, moms and dads and grandparents and nannies read books and chat on the phone. Around the playscape at the park, the grown-ups pop open laptops or plug into their iPods.

I’ve done this very thing so many times myself. As a home manager, I’ve come to rely on the power of multitasking to get accomplished what needs to be done. We grown-ups, we are all very busy, and a trip to the playground usually means that somewhere, something has been left undone. If we can access those minutes on the sidelines of a playscape to return a few calls or get a few pages of the book club selection read, then the sacrifice of time doesn’t feel quite so burdensome.

And sometimes it isn’t about getting anything done at all. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite. After a long day of answering questions (“Mom, would an otter bite me?”) and cleaning marks off of the wall left behind by a marker unearthed from the mystery treasure trove only my toddler knows the whereabouts of, I just need a little time and space to zone out while my girls burn through some of the endless supply of energy
that propels them through each day.

At our last trip to the playground, as I observed the grandmother on the phone and the granddaughters at play, I began to think about all I miss out on when I put up invisible “do not disturb” signs around myself once we enter the playground gates:

Connecting with my children. I don’t know about your children, but my girls find it absolutely thrilling when I pull them into my lap so we can swing together or when I climb to the top of the ladder and go down the slide with them. Playing with a child at a playground delights the child because the adult has agreed to meet them in their world. It’s a beautiful validation for that little one that the experience of play is worth mommy mussing up her hair and her shoes a bit to share with her.

Connecting with other parents and caregivers. Parenting can be a lonely, isolating gig. I wonder how many new friendships I’ve missed out on because I was sending out very overt “closed” vibes. Sometimes a shared laugh over the antics of kids at play can be enough for two grown-ups to remember what we try to teach our children – that making friends isn’t really all that hard if you are willing to try.

Connecting with the other children at play.  The older of the two granddaughters at the playground the other night spotted me playing with my girls near the slide. She confided in me that they had just moved to our town a few days before and that the job their Daddy was supposed to get had suddenly fallen through. She had just finished first grade but the weight of the world was on her shoulders. I thought about how each of the children playing there that night had a story – some happy, and some not so happy. In a culture that makes it easy for adults to be increasingly disconnected from the children in their care, many children are craving the attention from someone who will listen for just a minute.

Please know that I am not insisting that every trip to the playground must be one of constant, alert, fully-present awareness. Sometimes we all need some space and some room to breathe. Sometimes we simply have to use those pockets of time that life hands us to take care of business. 

But perhaps every other playground outing or so, you might turn off your phone, cram yourself into that swing, and see if you can’t swing high enough to kick the sky. You might smell like a puppy who has been rolling in the grass by the time you head home, but I bet you’ll have exercised a little, laughed a lot, and maybe even made a friend or two.

Photo by are you my rik?