By Tracy G. Cassels

I’ve become very contemplative recently when it comes to my daughter’s play.  I realize I spend far too much time as her playmate, and frankly, I’m 33, I’m hardly a good substitute for another child aged 0-8 (who really should be her playmates).  But more than that I’m aware that I may actually be doing harm to her by being her playmate as often as I am.  I do not interact the way children do, I don’t help her learn her social environment of other children the way other children do, and when I hover close, I can’t help but keep her from exploring her full potential because I can’t help but worry about falls from rocks, bruises, hurt feelings, and every other normal aspect of play.  There are times where I can be a great playmate too, so I’m not trying to say that it’s all bad, but that I’m aware that kids need kids sometimes, especially for play.

The problem was that I assumed it may just be me.  Then I went to the park with eyes wide open.  I went with a friend and her 10-month-old boy and my daughter and as we walked up to the play area of the park, which was enclosed with a fence, I was startled.  There was not a single child who was not within 3 or 4 feet of his/her parents.  Not just the very young ones or the ones climbing on the more “dangerous” things, but all kids.  And because of this, it seemed that many of the children weren’t playing with each other unless they arrived together and the parents of each child were standing together chatting, 2 to 3 feet from their kids and consistently directing play.  I had to admit to myself that that’s often been me and watching it from the side, I felt sad.

Is this what going to the park has become?  As a child, I went to the park in our neighbourhood with friends.  Perhaps a parent came along (if there was a preschool aged kid, just to keep an eye), but rarely were they ever involved in play.  Going to the park was about playing with kids.  I played with my parents too when kids weren’t around and that was great, but when kids were around, I expected to play with them.  Now it seems going to the park is another way in which parents play with their children, which is great when there are no other kids around or it’s a special event, but we seem to be replacing children’s social engagement with more adult-oriented time.  Some might argue that there’s no difference but in fact there is.  Research has found that children actually need open-ended, non-directed play with other children to thrive socially.  As Christine Gross-Loh covers in her book Parenting Without Borders (all research based), one of the differences between children of today and children of the 1940s (where play was common, despite many other problems we might see), the average American five-year-old has the same emotional self-regulation as a three-year-old from the 1940s.

As for my daughter, I let her run around the park by herself.  I kept an eye on her from a distance and watched her first simply engage with herself, enjoying time at the various little “stations” around the park.  Though she’s normally very social, it seemed that she wasn’t able to break in to play with another child given the close level of attention and involvement of other parents.  At one point she came looking for me.  I got up and was with her in moments, but not before another mom, standing right beside her child, glared at me like I was a horrible parent.  Later, she would find a playmate – a young boy around her age who was at the park with his grandmother.  To be honest, I don’t know what they ended up doing except that they were in the sand box.  After, the grandmother and I spoke a bit.  I couldn’t stop myself from apologizing, but explained that I wanted my daughter to explore on her own.  It was reassuring to have this woman first tell me never to apologize, but second that my daughter seemed very independent already.

My problem now is that I have the first realization coupled with the second realization that I may not have a place to regularly go with it.  That is, I’ve realized my daughter needs unstructured play with other children, something she gets regardless a few times a week.  But I have also realized that outside of me “scheduling” this play, it is unbelievably difficult to come by.  Part of me wishes I could create my own park where parents have to stay out unless with a child under a year of age or there’s a mishap in the park that requires their attention.  Imagine the type of learning and socialization that would occur?!  Not just between children but parents as well!  Separating from your child to discuss the experiences and thoughts of another parent… well, I can dream.

But perhaps if more of us consider that despite our desire to play with our children and to guide them, that they may (in the end) do better with other kids some of the time, we can start to build the type of open environment we want for our children.  We all want sociable, independent, caring, and empathic children, right?  Let’s help them get there by giving them the time to socialize with those that will truly bring out those qualities:  Other kids.

[Image Credit:  It’s All Kids Play]