Playgrounds Without Panic

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Brooks School Park

Danger! This playground is next to water! EVERYBODY PANIC!!!!!

The kids and I spent a lot of time visiting playgrounds last summer.  We were helping KaBOOM! out in their Park-a-Day Challenge, and while we certainly didn’t make it to a park every day, we hit up quite a few.  By the end of the summer, myself and the kids had a pretty good idea of what we thought made a good playground.

There were some things we all agreed on (bathrooms, at least one shady spot, monkey bars), and other things that we differed in opinion ( I could live without splash parks, the kids love them).  That’s the thing about playgrounds – they’re not one size fits all.

I couldn’t help but find myself disappointed and a little bit peeved after I read one mom’s blog post detailing her recent visit to an upgraded playground.  I think the title will give you a small hint as to how she felt about this particular playground:  “An Itemized Tour of the Most Terrifying Playground in the World.  EVERYBODY PANIC!!!!!”  

I looked at the pictures and thought, “How freaking awesome!  We need one of these in Indy!”  Giant slides, spinners, hills, drain pipes . . . my kids would flip for these kinds of amenities.  The author, and the majority of her 80+ commenters, felt differently.  The major complaints included not being able to see your kids at all times, the possibility for injury from falls, and fears that the space encouraged kids to wander off or place them in danger of being kidnapped.

In fairness, this particular blogger definitely writes with humor and sarcasm.  Some points have been over-dramatized for entertainment.  However the commenters are dead serious.    They see it as a place purely of risk, with some calling for playground guidelines and standards.

Let me tell you about a playground that used to give me hives in Nashville.  It was an enormous, wooden play structure inside the Nashville Zoo.  When I say enormous, I mean it.  Think 60,000+ square feet.  Think 35 feet tall.  I used to meet up with some girlfriends at the Zoo a couple of times a month.  Our kids were toddlers and for the longest time we could keep them corralled in this awesome little outdoor padded room.  We could always see them, and they couldn’t get hurt.  Then one day one of the kids figured out how to escape from the padded room.  That was pretty much the end of the Zoo playground visits for us.  Elena was fearless, and she’d scale the first 2 stories of that play structure before I knew she was gone.  There were multiple places for her to exit the playground, there were umpteen million ways she could fall or get stuck.  I cursed that playground.

But here’s the thing:  I detested that playground because it wasn’t age-appropriate for my kid.  For the other, older kids who were bored to death with traditional playgrounds?   It was heaven.  Now that I have older kids who need more than a slide and a few stairs to keep them entertained and active, I think it’s heaven, too.

I get it.  Not every playground is a good fit for every kid.  Age, temperament, and sensory issues are all important factors in determining what activities are appropriate choices.  We need all kinds of playspaces.

How about we make encourage our park planners to think about all ages and abilities when designing different playgrounds?  How about we make sure each community has at least one playground that gives mothers with young kids a safe place to play?  How about we make sure each community has one kick-ass, challenging playground for older kids?  How about we loosen up just a bit and give those older kids a chance to climb high and disappear for just a bit.  But more importantly, how about we not panic?



  1. We need to meet at the playground this summer. My monkeys can play with your monkeys. that is all.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. I’m probably in the middle between where you are and where most of my friends are, with me leaning more and more to your side. Which brings up a question I have that maybe you can blog about sometime? How do you handle playdates with another mom who is way more strict with her kids? It’s not exactly fair to tell my kid, “Sorry, you can’t do that when X is here.” But then this also makes the other mom more vigilante about watching her own kid, which results in us not being able to chat and no one really having a great time. And I don’t want to just not have playdates with them, because otherwise, she is a great friend… 😉

    Hope that makes sense!

    • That’s a great idea for a future post and I’ll certainly cover it. It doesn’t happen to me as much now that the kids are older, but it used to happen ALL the time. Probably because I’m the most slacker mom on the playground … but my kids have a lot of fun! A couple of things I’ve used, though:
      1. I light-heartedly make fun of me being the slacker mom, then use the opportunity to tell the other mom why I think our method of relaxing a bit on the playground makes the experience more enjoyable for everyone.
      2. If I can tell that nothing is going to change their mind as far as relaxing the rules, and I it’s not someone we’ll play with regularly, I pull the kids aside and privately tell them that there will be a few more rules on this playground visit. I think at 4 years and older they get that concept and are fine with it.
      3. If I’m not going to change any minds and it’s someone we see regularly, I explain that we have more lax rules and I’m okay with my kids doing X, Y and Z. I tell the other parent I respect their rules, but we’re going to stick by our family rules as well. I make sure my kids know not to encourage the other kid(s) to do things they’re not allowed to do. Then I send them on their way and use the time when they’re intent on intervening in play to relax and check up on Twitter 🙂

      It’s always my hope that we’ll lead by example. I think a lot of times it takes parents seeing other kids playing in a more free-range way to realize that it’s okay and not dangerous. Thanks for a great question!

  3. Hey, I appreciate that you noted that I write humor and that I dramatize for effect. None of the nasty commenters who have shown up at my blog since Kaboom linked to that post seem to be aware of that.

    In defense of my commenters, many of them are parents of kids with special needs, specifically autism. Lots of kids with autism need to have a much closer eye kept on them because they tend to up and leave without saying anything and they also need help negotiating the social aspect of parks. It’s not a matter of assuming that if you throw them in with the other kids that they will figure it out. Their brains work differently and they need help.

    Furthermore, this is a park just outside of DC, so it’s hard to trust in strangers being good to your kids in a place like that. I do encourage independence in my kids and to let them do risky things, I just keep an eye on them while they do it. I also think that presenting a kid with a couple of slides and a staircase encourages them to use their imagination, which is never a bad thing. Either way, I hope everyone can live and let live and understand that just because we may act different at parks, that doesn’t mean we are bad parents.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. I’m sorry to hear you’ve had nasty commenters. I hope you weren’t offended in any way, as I really wanted to use your post, and the comments that followed, as a spring board for thinking about the kinds of playgrounds our communities need.

      It’s funny – we all get judged in one way or another for how we parent on the playground. In your case, people are jumping all over you because you keep a tighter rein on your kids (as you must based on their temperaments and needs), while I tend to draw ire because I let my kids take more risks than most. It’s a wonder any of us are actually doing it “right.” What worries me about some of the comments in your post is the sentiment that parks such as the one you covered shouldn’t exist because they’re too “dangerous.” What is a space for stress for some kids and parents is heaven on earth for mine. I’d like to see a park or two of that kind in a community, along with some that are appropriate and fun for kids with special needs or those that are in need of smaller, gentler play spaces. Gah, who knew writing about playgrounds could get so touchy?