At a park near my house on a hot summer day, my five-year-old and two-year-old discover the water fountain. They make a game of splashing water out and stomping in the puddle with their bare feet. Other young children try to join in, but parent after parent says “no” and takes them away, sometimes in tears. These unhappy parents look offended as they search for the lazy mom who must not know her children are causing trouble.
The Lazy Mom
I have become accustomed to letting my kids explore and play with little intervention at the park. They get to take some risks in a safe environment. I rarely tell them to be careful or not to get dirty. Not to brag, but I don't even freak out if the baby tastes a wood chip.
I have noticed many parents supervise their children to the point of following their every move and suggesting activities. I see parents climbing up play structures with their little ones, telling them not to climb the slide, and intervening in minor disagreements between young children. I saw a mom physically remove her two-year-old from a small piece of playground equipment, telling him it was “too dangerous” to climb. I have seen a dad administer and monitor a long line for the monkey bars.
I am the lazy mom sitting back on a bench at the park. I have felt awkward many times, being the only parent who isn't pushing a child on the swing or playing with them. I have been scolded by other parents for allowing a little one to climb or get into mud. A complete stranger yelled at me from an adjacent yard to warn me that my child was in danger climbing on a tree in our yard. Much to the chagrin of the concerned citizen, I replied, “It’s ok, he does it all the time.”
I’m committed to staying off the playground, not just to catch up on Instagram but for the benefit of my children. Free play has actually been shown to help children with their emotional development. A little “danger” is good for them! For a five-year-old, climbing on top of a tube slide can be a thrill and a chance to gain confidence. Allowing children to navigate arguments with other children gives them a chance to learn emotional control and even kindness. These natural processes are interrupted when parents continually step in.
When I heard about adventure playgrounds, like the ones that exist in Europe, I was intrigued. These adventure playgrounds, without constant meddling from parents, offer a chance for kids to play with fire, build forts, swing from ropes, and play with sticks—things that would trigger a call to the police on an American playground. On most of these adventure playgrounds, there is an adult on site to administer first aid if needed, but they rarely interfere with the children at play. Parents don't stay to supervise, either.
I thought this idea was bound to happen near me. I was wrong. There is a Facebook group devoted to identifying adventure playgrounds. Some exist in cities like Portland, Oregon, and New York, but that is a long drive for us. There is an excellent group called the Free Forest School that offers meet-ups encouraging free play and getting dirty outside. A local group started recently, which is exciting, but we still make a lot of trips to our local park.
Whose Baby Is That?
I meet up with a group of other moms and kids regularly. The kids go out to explore the park. The park has “little kid” and “big kid” playground equipment, lots of open space, and a big hill with trees. One day, my 16-month-old climbed onto a baby-sized play structure. I sat about seven feet away chatting with friends. I saw two moms following a toddler onto the same structure.
Soon, my baby was a bit in the way with the two extra adults crowding the platform. One mom began exaggeratedly looking around. She said to her friend, with a superior tone, “Whose baby is that?” I did not get up to move my baby.
This comment annoyed me, made me giggle, and honestly made me feel a little proud. I am enjoying watching my children learn how to navigate the world. I will continue to be nearby, but I will not there to clear every obstacle. Consider letting little ones get dirty and be wild. Children learn to trust themselves as they master physical and social skills on the playground. Playing freely and having these little adventures is part of childhood.
So if you see a dirty looking little one wielding a stick, playing in that puddle, or being too loud…that could be my baby.
This article has been republished with permission from The Foundation for Economic Education.
Katie Day is a mother of three young children and lives in East Atlanta with her husband of 11 years. She has a Masters Degree and works part time as an Adoption Social Work for families adopting older children out of the foster care system.