Who is the better parent? The parent following along and playing with their kid at the playground, or the parent sitting on the bench, staring at their phone, more or less ignoring their child while she climbs and plays?
My answer is, of course, I have no idea. There are far too many variables for me to ever judge which parent is better or worse. And our tendency as a society to cast judgement on parents is one of the biggest problems in parenting today. That being said, I am quite happy to have moved to an area where most parents at parks and playgrounds are the ‘stare at your phones’ type. Because, in many cases, their inattention helps me provide Cat with the play situation she needs.
We were at an indoor playground yesterday. Cat ran and played with a fairly large and diverse group of kids on the playground, while Dove and I joined literally all of the other adults there, sitting on the sides, staring at our phones. I went back and forth between reading a book on my phone and watching Cat. I was paying enough attention to realize that I hadn’t seen her at all for probably 5 minutes. I was standing near the entrance so I knew she hadn’t left the playground, and a good bit of the playground was out of my sight, so I wasn’t worried. I did, however, bring this oddity to Dove’s attention.
“I haven’t seen Cat in awhile. I wonder where she is.” He looked up. “She’s probably in the tube slide, blocking the other kids from going down.” He turned his attention back to his phone.
That was interesting. Dove’s easy confidence in his guess led me to believe that he had seen her pull this stunt before, probably more than once. Now I really watched the kids play. I still didn’t see Cat, but there were a couple of kids at the top of the slide, staring down into the slide in puzzlement. No one was coming out the bottom. The kids at the top called over another boy. He walked over, looked down the slide, and climbed in. A minute or so later, he came out the bottom, triumph all over his face. The kids at the top cheered for him. I was pretty sure that Dove was right. Cat was camping out inside the slide, attempting to block the other kids from going down. The boy who just came out of the slide had successfully made it past her. And now other kids were climbing into the top of the slide, with looks of determination on their faces.
In far too many supervised play scenarios, Cat’s little monopoly of the slide would be brought to a swift end by a helpful adult. There are rules. Slides are for going down. And taking turns. Cat was actively and intentionally preventing all the other kids from using the slide in the right way. I’ve heard parents go so far as to refer to this sort of play as being mean, or even bullying. As her parent, I was supposed to go and intervene. Instruct Cat on proper slide use, and remove her if necessary. Because, you know, someone could get hurt.
That is not what I did. I simply watched. And as the scene unfolded, it became entertaining enough to rouse Dove from his phone, and we watched together as the crowd of kids united against their common enemy – our cute little four year old in her dinosaur dress. The growing crowd of kids at the top of the slide was unusual enough that virtually all the kids on the playground wandered over to see what was happening. They talked to each other excitedly, gesturing into the slide where I now knew Cat was hiding, trying her best to block all traffic.
The kids took turns climbing in one at a time and attempting to get through. Some made it past her, emerging exultantly from the bottom. Some climbed in and eventually climbed back out the top, presumably defeated. I watched the kids carefully, to see if any of them were feeling particularly hurt or victimized by this situation. But no, they were all engaged, united in their effort to figure out a way past their little girl-shaped obstacle. The game continued like this for awhile, but then one of the bigger boys had an idea. I couldn’t hear exactly what he said to the group, but he was clearly explaining some plan. Then, child after child climbed into the top of the slide. They kept climbing in, clown-car style, until I began to wonder how they could all fit in there. And then, all of a sudden, Cat came tumbling out of the bottom, forced out by the sheer mass of kids that had worked together to dislodge her.
The kids all happily ran off in different directions. Cat struck up a chase game with a boy about her size – the same boy who made it past her first. Several kids went down the slide in the traditional fashion. Then one boy climbed into the slide from the bottom. I didn’t see him come back out, and it became clear that he was taking his turn as the block in the slide.
I was delighted. This was such a great moment of learning, for all the kids. They practiced independent problem solving, teamwork, resilience and perseverance. All of the skills that have been shown to be the most critical for kids to develop, that promote their learning in every other area. Plus a little physics just for fun. They were engaged in higher level play, combining many different areas of learning into a single game. If I had done what many view as my ‘job’, by stepping in and intervening when I saw Cat was blocking the slide, I would have prevented much of their learning. And I would have been sending all of them a loud and clear message that I did not believe they were capable of working through their playful conflict on their own.
Kids need to learn to share and take turns nicely. And they need to learn to fight for something and then hold it against those who would take it from them. And they need to learn to work together as a team to accomplish something that none of them could have achieved independently. They need to learn to try one solution and then another, each one failing until finally they find something that works. I could go on and on. They learn all of these things in one way. They learn through play. Independent, child-directed, open-ended, sustained play. And we are ruining it. With all of our structure, all of our intervening and supervising, and teaching, we take these opportunities away from them way too much. When we step in and intervene at the first sign of a conflict, we deny children a valuable opportunity to learn conflict management. By insisting that materials be used in a certain way, we significantly diminish the amazing range of play and learning opportunities those materials could provide. When we sort kids into age categories, we deny the little ones the chance to learn from the example of bigger kids, and we deny the older kids the opportunities to teach and help the younger ones. It is no surprise to me that research has begun to surface indicating that kids reap significant benefits, not just from free play, but from unsupervised play specifically. Out on their own. No adults around to turn to when problems or conflicts arise.
I would enroll Cat in preschool, but the difference between the best practices I learned in college was so much the opposite of what is actually happening in almost every preschool that it almost gave me whiplash. I would enroll Cat in a sport or structured activity, and I certainly will when she gets older and expresses an interest, but she is four. She doesn’t need structure, she needs to play! So, at the moment I’m just grateful for all of those parents who stare at their phones and let my child join in as all the children get down to the real business of childhood learning – unstructured, unadulterated free play.