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  • Samantha Leeson, CBEd, Doula, LS

Letting Our Children Learn to Play In The Park

The weather is nicer. The trees and grass are greening up and everyone is anxious to get outside and explore the world. Last year your toddler was happy to hold your hand and walk beside you. He rarely left a 5 yard radius of your body and you knew that he would be safe because he showed nothing more than a passing curiosity when looking at the playground equipment that was clearly too big for his wee legs.

This summer your baby is growing up and has discovered a sense of adventure. Not only has the adventure set in but so too has her ability to run farther and faster than you. She sees the bigger play structures at the park as challenges meant to be tackled head-on!

How do you help your sweet child learn to play safely while also helping them to maintain their need to learn and discover on their own?

My children were taught that they needed to listen to their bodies and that they needed to be able to achieve success on the playground of their own accord (of COURSE I was there to spot them). This simply meant that I didn’t help them climb the rope, scale the “rock” wall or navigate the hand-over-hand bars. I wanted them to be able to learn to try it themselves and see what their body told them.

When I was a child this was something we essentially learned on our own. We had a HUGE property to go out and explore at will and we were given carte-blanche for figuring out what our bodies could and couldn’t do. There definitely wasn't anyone there to catch us when we fell. We weren’t in parks as often though and there were very few play structures around to test our physical limits. We learned at a young age that apple trees were easier to climb than maples; the branches were lower and closer together.

When my children were well past the age of needing constant supervision, my concern was also about the lessons that they taught the other children. **To the parents who winced as my boys climbed more on the {inappropriate} outside of the equipment than the inside: I am sorry. I remember the frustration I experienced when my boys would watch the “big kids” play in a way that I was less comfortable with.

Many years ago my friend, Stephanie, made an observation that has stuck with me in the years since. She said that the more we tell our children to “be careful” the more we end up giving them instruction instead of encouraging them to learn for themselves. I took that, and many other pearls of wisdom impart to me by her, to heart. I wanted my children to learn how to achieve success on their own and I didn’t want to worry them that their choice of activity might be unsuitable for them. I wanted them to come to that conclusion on their own. The best part of this approach for me was seeing how my preconceived ideas of what my children should and should not be able to do was rarely on par with their own. What’s more? They usually were far more easily able to accomplish the goals they’d set for themselves than I expected. I want to reiterate that I was ALWAYS present for them as they did their exploring; I simply was not the one to be leading the expedition.

I did a brief survey on Twitter to ask parents how they taught safety to their children while helping their babies retain their dignity and, more importantly, their INTEREST in learning about the world around them.

@Principled told me that she believes “The fewer rules, the better. Our big one is “stay together.” And @KarenAngstadt wrote that she “always taught them to climb down after they climb up (from age 2 on). One skill absolutely nec for safety.” I love how @wendymcdonnell put it (as I always love her thoughts) when she wrote: “how about simplicity in parenting. less is more…

At the end of the day, I strongly believe that our children will learn to be strong and independent individuals more quickly and confidently the more we back-off and stop helicopter or lawn-mower parenting them. Let them fall (within reason of course) and skin their knees. It will hurt them physically and it will break your heart. It DOES teach them lessons though and we need to be less afraid of experiential learning. We teach them the skills required to be safe and, more importantly to me, to listen to their instincts and we stand with them as they try new adventures. We offer suggestions when we are asked for help but mostly we just continue to encourage their desire to learn and achieve of their own volition.

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