I cannot anymore with The Playground and I’m not afraid to say it. But what kind of monster hates the playground? you might be thinking. The answer is an ornery and non-award-winning™ mom. Like me.
I definitely appreciate aspects. I understand that the playground is a timeless civic institution — a place of joy and discovery and memory-making and milestones… all that jazz. And when you say the word, it does sound pleasant. “Playground.” You picture a scene that’s slo-mo and sun-dappled and full of beaming faces and peals of laughter.
My little family of four has logged a lot of hours at the playground over the years. We even have affectionate nicknames for our regular haunts: The Squishy Park (for its rubber ground), The Sand Park (duh), The Mila Park (named for preschool classmate Mila, whom we once saw there), The River Park (where a barely-there stream trickles through, perfect for launching bath toys), and the Spider-Man park (named for the blessed day that a real, live, spandex-clad, adult Spider-Man sashayed through, which my kids will never forget so long as they live).
But as I sat at the park recently watching my 4-year-old son — and shooting dagger eyes at two moms whose boys were flinging rubber arrows all over the place, including into my back– I realized ho-lee crap, I’m almost done with this godforsaken place. My family is about to graduate. It happened already with my 9-year-old, and, now, as my son nears school age, he’ll inevitably have less of that unstructured weekend time that comes with the early years. He’ll be busier with play dates, sports stuff, etc. And praise be, because the playground is home to some of my least favorite dynamics. Here are some things about playground culture that I will not miss:
- Parents who talk to you through their kids. This has to be one of the creepiest parent tics of all time. You know what I’m talking about, that thing where the parent doesn’t speak to you directly but instead says loudly to their 1-year-old “Say excuse me to that mommy, Jakey, you’re blocking her way. YOU’VE GOT TO SAY EXCUSE ME, JAKEY’ while tossing a knowing glance-slash-eye roll at you, and you’re like ‘heh heh, no worries, I’ll step over him.’ (And also: Jakey can’t talk so stop trolling him!) Or the parent is responding to something adorbs/ridic their child has done, yet their words are directed sideways at you to make you laugh or commiserate, and you’re like omg I can’t tell if she’s talking to me or not please leave me out of this I’m just trying to stuff my kid’s thighs into this swing. Listen, I really am happy to gab with fellow parents, I just prefer they speak to me directly, adult human to adult human.
- …unless it’s small-talk, though, because ugh. I know this is a Catch-22 because small-talk is the necessary precursor to non-small-talk. But I think there’s a way around it. Like what if someone invented name tags we could wear at the park – as if we’re at a conference? It would state your child’s age and name and then say “yes, it’s hot/chilly/crowded today” and you could circle an option.
- The Bring Everything culture. Here’s where I feel particularly out-of-step with my fellow parents. I’m a minimalist, and even when my kids were very young, I’d tote around as little as possible when we went out because I like living on the edge. My theory’s always been let’s just do the activity we’re doing, and whatever it is we might need, we’ll be home soon. Obvs this doesn’t apply if we’re flying cross-country or something, I’m not a lunatic! But to the park, sure. Yet some families bring along ALL THE POSSESSIONS, it seems. In addition to the basics, they bring all manner of toys (in case the playground’s structures get boring, I guess?), balls befitting every sport, books, dinner in case they stay late, lawn chairs in which to sit and enjoy the dinner, etc. And it’s not my business, except that the Bring Everything culture is like a virus. My kid sees the other mom pulling out a vat of pesto tortellini and is like Mom, where’s my dinner? IT’S AT HOME IN THE FUTURE TENSE, CHILD. Constant #momfail for me.
- The names. “Falcon!” “Huxley!” “Jagger!” Just stop it. (Also maybe I’ve been living in L.A. too long.)
- Watch me, Watch me, Watch me, Mom, are you watching me? I genuinely enjoy watching my kids play, it’s just that I’d prefer to do it in a 1950s-mom kind of way, i.e. quietly and from a shaded park bench. But this is not my lot in life. “Why aren’t you saying anything?!” my son will demand if I don’t exclaim with a specific comment after each run down the slide. Which brings me to another invention idea: a device whereby instead of saying wow I can just press a button and little (biodegradable) stars or confetti shoot up into the sky in celebration.
- Discipline issues. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying that my kid will be a jerk to someone or that another kid will be a jerk to him, because both those things will happen. These are fledgling humans, and the playground is a natural place to figure their shiz out. So, if my kid and another are jockeying over some apparatus, I prefer to hang back and let them work it out themselves. But with all those parent eyes around, I feel pressure — real or imagined — to intervene. So intervene I do. Not for the kids’ sake, but as a little show for the parents so everyone knows I am a Good & Attentive Mom. This is silly.
In case anyone else out there suffers from park fatigue, here are some alternative outings I’ve been known to turn to when there’s time to kill and I just don’t have it in me to do the playground.
- The McDonald’s play area. Hear me out because these upsides are pretty compelling: a thrilling play structure in an enclosed space, A/C, a soft-serve ice cream treat at the end, and, for me, the chance to kick back in a booth, alone, while I watch them play or send a few emails. Bliss. Plus no one steps in dog doo.
- Backyard Play dates. Who cares if you don’t have a swing set or tree house. Sometimes simple backyard play dates are successful simply because they’re contained — and the kids can be more independent on their own turf. I’ve been known to actually have full conversations with mom-friends in this setting because no one has to dart off to push a swing or crouch inside a massive tire.
- Letting loose in grass. We bring a blanket and a kite or soccer ball to an empty baseball field, and everyone is set free to enjoy an expanse of space. Wide open space! We should do it more often! So energizing. So life-affirming.
- Hitting the grocery store. Would I love to shop by myself in a thoughtful and leisurely manner? Of course. But sometimes bringing the kids to the market can be pretty fun, especially when I’m not in a rush. There may not be the chance for exercise like there is at the park (unless you’re my son), but there is plenty of opportunity for counting, calculating, choosing, creating, and planning. And, of course, there’s something brilliantly #winning about killing two birds. Attagirl.