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9 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Took My Kid To The Playground For The First Time

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When you become a parent, you quickly realize that there’s a long list of situations that weren’t covered in parenting classes or in your adventures in babysitting. Some of them — how to take a shower when you’re the only one watching an infant — you learn about pretty quickly. Others you adapt to as they arise, and some of them can be complicated, especially when other parents — and other kids — are involved. In short: when it’s your kid, it’s your playground, and you can make the rules.

But when your kid is on an actual playground, it’s not just a day at the park. (Nothing is simple when you’re a parent.) You and your kid will be interacting with other kids and other parents, and things can get tricky. Here’s a list of tips to help you and your kid make the best of your time amid the teeter totters and the faux rock walls.

Flickr (Paul Schultz)

Your Mission
Your goal at the park is simple: You want your kids to burn off energy, and you want to avoid expending any energy whatsoever. You know how alligators spend a lot of their time just vegging out in the sun whenever possible? That’s basically what I do when I’m at the park.

If you’re like me, a trip to park is a Hail Mary of sorts. You know the scene: your kid is wound-up beyond belief, literally sprinting across the living room — my kid took 27 laps around a kitchen island the other day — so you head somewhere your kid can sprint with indirect supervision and unimpeded by Lego minefields and the dagger-like corners of coffee tables: the park.

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At the park, you camp out on a bench, commiserate with other parents, and discreetly supervise your kid’s activities. When I’m at a park, I think of myself as a really lousy spy. Everyone knows I’m there, and whom I’m surveilling. My obvious presence is evidenced by the occasional “be carefuls” and the silent winces when the little one sprints just in front of a kid on the swings, but you make your presence known in a detached, middle-manager sense. So use your phone, read a book, but look up regularly enough to make sure your genetic progeny is still kicking and not about to take a flying leap off of the monkey bars. Other than that, you’re golden.

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Don’t Stare At Other Children, Or Parents
Let’s just get this one out of the way: There’s nothing weirder than a full-grown man intently watching children play. Unless you want other parents to think you’re a perp straight out of Law and Order, SVU, don’t watch other kids intently. You can notice them, sure and even smile if they do something funny when interacting with your kid, but beyond that, ugh, watch out. And don’t ogle moms, either. Eww.

Don’t Play With Other People’s Kids
This one piggybacks on the above rule, but it’s definitely worth mentioning. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t like touching my own kids, because germs. And I sure as hell don’t like touching other people’s kids because (a) germs and (b) I don’t know, they aren’t my kids.

Still, you may run into situations where some kid asks you to play with them. It happened to me recently. A little girl was on the swings — her dad appeared to be entranced by his fantasy team on his phone — and she asked me to push her. I looked around, a bit weirded-out by the whole idea, and then declined because Don’t Touch Other People’s Kids seems to be a rule of nature. If you disagree, try it with a grizzly bear, or imagine how you’d feel if you looked up to find some rando giving your daughter an underdog on the swings. (Even typing that makes me feel vaguely nauseous.)

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Now sure, if a kid is going to bite it from the monkey bars and you can prevent a trip to the ER, then OK, save the day, but even then, you’re in strange waters. What happens if you save the kid from falling from the monkey bars, only to have them slip out of your hands and take a header in full view of their parents? Sure, they might be thankful, but you might also trigger the beat-the-hell-out-any-threats-to-my-offspring gene that every parent certainly recognizes.

Don’t Talk to Other People’s Kids
Even taking up a conversation with someone else’s kid is weird, because kids will follow you around, talking endlessly. This happened to me on our last trip. My little guy was making his way up the plastic rock wall when he encountered an 8-year-old, who started talking to me, even though I tried to ignore her. Her monologue reached its nadir when she laughed out loud and said, “I try not to get sad anymore because when I’m sad I just want to choke people.”

I paused, nodded, and subtly moved my body to shield my kid as I hurried him to the nearest slide as if it were the emergency exit on a burning airplane. It was seriously disconcerting, and we left the park not all that long after.

Don’t Hover
This is the rule I have the most trouble with. If your kids are little and especially adventurous, you need to tail them, at least until they get old enough to safely manage the equipment. My 3-year-old is huge — 40 pounds and well over 3 feet tall — so he thinks he can handle all of the playground equipment. This is inaccurate; hell, my balky knees can hardly handle gamboling up the steel ladders, and so I usually need to follow him, at a distance, to make sure he isn’t trying to pull a Philippe Petit on the playground gear, or run in front of the swings. As he’s aged, though, he’s become more independent, so I’ve been able to keep my distance more and more, but this is still a hard rule to learn, as two general principles of parenting — don’t let your kid die and don’t get in the way — come into conflict.

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Don’t Try to Be the Cool Dad
If you’re a ham like me, this one’s tough, but Murphy’s Law is most applicable when your kids are around. And at the park, other people’s kids are there too. The last time we were at the park, my little guy wanted me to carry him to the top of the park’s rope-net pyramid. I have no idea how this thing is legal; it has a single mast that is probably 20 feet tall. It’s essentially a web of cargo ropes that becomes narrower and narrower as you get closer to the top. When you set your kids loose on it, you’re basically telling them, “Hey, go play in that wobbly ship rigging!”

When my 3-year-old saw that there were half a dozen 8-year-olds wailing for help from their parents, he quickly asked to ride on my head, and I acquiesced. I knew it was a mistake when my knee buckled like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge after the first leap.

By the time we’d descended from the summit, I knew I wouldn’t be walking well for a week. That was risky enough — Lord knows what would have happened if my knee actually gave out mid-climb — but if you’re at the park and showing off to your kid and other people’s kids, things could get even worse. I mean, I remember seeing a dad trying to impress a gaggle of grade-schoolers at a sandlot by showing how far he could hit a baseball.

Of course, on the first pitch he hit a screamer right at the head of the 10-year-old southpaw, missing him by maybe 5 inches. One of his parents saw the near-disaster and yelled out loud, “What the hell were you thinking?” The guy didn’t say anything, as he knew there wasn’t much to say by way of response. Don’t be that dad. (That was me, by the way.)

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If Your Kids Are Older, Make Sure The Ground Rules Are Clear
My kids are younger, so most of my park duties consist of shepherding the kids down the slides and pushing them on the swings, but things change once your kids get older. They become more autonomous and you can let them roam with their pals. But even though your kids get older, the old parenting instincts never go away, and you’ll find yourself looking up periodically to locate your progeny and check on their well-being, and this means that communication becomes key. On one of our recent visits to a park, a kid didn’t tell his mom that he was going to the bathroom, which was situated maybe a few hundred yards away from the park proper.

The park wasn’t all that big, so if you wanted to find your kid, you only had to look up and glance about for ten seconds. This poor mom looked up and didn’t see her kid. So she walked around, and didn’t see her kid. She then began frantically asking other parents if they’d seen a kid in an orange shirt, and recognizing that she was experiencing every parent’s worst fear, we quickly fanned out. (This must be hardwired in parents, too, because there were perhaps ten parents at the park, all strangers, and we all spread out in a cohesive search pattern within maybe thirty seconds.) Thankfully, the kid was found in the PortaPotty within a minute, and we all smiled as she berated him with the tone that parents know all too well: anger suffused with relief.

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Stay Out Of It
When my kid is at the park, I’m basically Switzerland. I’m neutral. I watch my kid, make sure no one violates the Geneva Conventions, and maybe I eat some chocolate. In other words, I let my kid deal with things on his own (within limits), and I often spend my time trying to help him become a better kid (and person). This usually consists of periodic reminders about sharing, not cutting in line, all that, and when conflicts arise, I usually let things ride, at least to a point. Part of this is curiosity: watching your kid respond to conflict is half a sociology experiment involving your own genome and half a pass-fail test of your parenting skills. That’s perhaps the oddest thing about a day at the park as a parent: you’re rarely concerned with how other people’s kids are acting. Instead, you spend half of your time ensuring your kids are safe, and the other half making damn sure they aren’t acting like the park tyrant.

Try To Relax
I know, I know, the concept of relaxing is downright laughable most of the time when you’re a parent. I don’t know about you, but I hardly ever relax until well after the Great Bedtime Rebellion is over each night, and even then, I’m only a bad dream or a fever away from being back on active duty. (As a parent, you’re always on call.) None of this changes when your kid is at the park — they could always bite it on the monkey bars—but most of the time, a trip to the park is all upside. You get to chill while watching the best sort of entertainment: your kid, laughing and giggling and enjoying the sheer joy of play. There are worse ways to spend a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, that’s for sure.

Brett Ortler is the author of a number of non-fiction books, including Dinosaur Discovery Activity Book, The Beginner’s Guide to Ship Watching on the Great Lakes, Minnesota Trivia Don’tcha Know!, and several others. His writing has appeared in Salon, at Yahoo! as well as at The Good Men Project, and on The Nervous Breakdown, among many other venues. A husband and father, his house is full of children, pets, and noise.