Reflecting on our time at the playground

It feels like just yesterday that I was waiting for B to be big enough to go to the park. With a May birthday, we spent her first summer doing newborn things… rocking her all night, walking in circles around our neighborhood with her in the moby wrap, etc…. A trip to the park to push her on the swings or watch her go down the slide was a diversion that I was eagerly anticipating! During her 2nd summer, she was crawling and I scoped out every park in a 3 mile radius finding the best options for tiny tots – no mulch to fish out of her mouth, shady, not too many “big kids.” We discovered B LOVED slides – she was going up and down them independently long before she was walking. The following summer B was finally walking! A whole new ballgame… pretty much any park was fair game and she was so ready to explore. Swings, slides, climbing structures… she tried it all while I watched and spotted as needed.

park water play

Water Play

Not surprisingly, this summer was – once again – a new experience when it came to how we explore and use parks. One change that I was aware of is that I’m spending a lot more time at the parks this summer on the bench. B often tells me, “go sit down mama. I’m playing.” I happily oblige and head to a bench – it is SO rejuvenating to sit outdoors and just relax while I watch B play.

park playing tag

Playing Tag

As I watched her play this past week, I was paying particularly close attention. Rather than simply observing for safety while I daydreamed, gazed at the clouds, or caught up on email via my iphone I was really watching her… observing with my “teacher lens” on. As I watched, I realized that the reason I’m able to sit and relax so often at the park these days, is because she’s engaging with her peers rather than with me. B usually spends the first portion of our park time on the swings. I’ll push her for a bit (at her request), she tries pumping (not quite there yet), and then she’ll hang on her tummy for a bit or push her doll in the baby swing. She then does a lap of through the slides and any climbing structures – she can attempt most independently now these days.

But, as she’s exploring the equipment, she’s also scoping out the other kids at the park. After a while, she often asks another child to play with her or observes their play, as if waiting for an invitation or an opportunity to join.

Sometimes, her attempts are successful and she begins to play cooperatively.

I watched B played Fireman with a small group of children at the park this week. They took turns driving a firetruck (a steering wheel attached to the play structure) and then acted as if they were spraying water at the slides throughout the park. Predictably, someone always ran up the ladder – towards the imagined fire – and the others would call to them to be careful. Another time, B found just a single playmate – a little boy about her age. They joined forces inside a playhouse and took turns taking and serving ice cream orders through the window. Another time, B and a group of children took turns blowing bubbles. Each child got 3 turns before passing the wand to the next child, a “rule” that the group created without adult guidance, and that didn’t surprise me given that several of the participants were 3-years-old.

Watching each of these scenarios left me proud. As a former preschool teacher, I am fully aware of the cooperative abilities of young children and recognize this as appropriate social-emotional development. As a parent, it’s amazing to watch my baby make her way in the world – her confidence in approaching peers and her creativity as she plays with them are inspiring.

park bubbles with friends

Bubbles with friends

Other times, B’s attempts at interaction with her peers didn’t go so well.

I watched as she dumped a bucket of water that another child had been working hard to fill for several minutes. She took a toy truck from another child in an interaction that left both her and the peer in tears. She asked a group of slightly older girls, “can I play with you” and was turned down.

This was more difficult to watch. As a parent, I felt impatient watching her immature social interactions and hurt and angry when she was rebuffed. However, as a teacher, I recognized that social learning was taking place in these interactions, just as it was in the positive interactions I described above.

park teetor totter

This week was a reminder that play is where learning happens! A great preschool program will have ample unstructured play time when children can experience the type of social learning that B participated in at the park over the last few weeks. A great home school program will have ample opportunities for students to interact with other young children in unstructured environments, like the playground.

Are the parks in your neighborhood full of kids? If not, where do your preschoolers play with other children?

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