Why it’s difficult to watch (some) parents at the playground

Recently, I went to the playground with my friends and their child. While there, I saw a lot of things that caused me discomfort. I saw a parent putting his child top of a play structure with stairs leading up to a short slide (not more than a few feet of the ground). The child immediately started to cry. After spending almost an hour there, I realized that these types of interactions were relatively common: adults putting toddlers on play equipment like bikes, slides, and stairs when the children have no expressed interest in them. In most cases, the children are also not developmentally ready for it.

For the past two years, I’ve been studying early childhood development and observing infants and toddlers ages 0-3 through the lens of RIE©. Difficult to distill into a single, digestible philosophy, RIE helps caregivers and parents react to their children through sensitive observation, rather than preconceived notions of what their children should be doing. This philosophy attempts to preserve the dignity of children by treating them with respect, and encourages adults to approach them as capable and competent.

If I assume the point of view of the child who was put on the play structure, a couple of things happened made me cry:

  1. The adult became the scriptwriter of my play and insinuated my interests and preferences.
  2. The adult assumed I was ready to be on the play structure when I didn’t feel physically secure there. This robbed me of my perception.
  3. I felt vulnerable -- and the person who made me feel this way is my trusted attachment figure who is supposed to make me feel secure, above all else.

All three of these resulted in my confusion, as the child. Let’s talk more into why the child felt this way.

 

The adult became the scriptwriter of my play and insinuated my interests and preferences

Infants and toddlers are often expected to perform according to someone else’s script. When we coax children into play with objects in which they are disinterested, we are unintentionally relaying to them, “I’m not interested in your preferences; what you are revealing to me right now [cognitively, developmentally, emotionally] isn’t good enough.”

RIE encourages parents to observe their toddlers during play, but to not interfere, intrude, or be the scriptwriter. This means letting go of any expectations of what they play with and how they play. When adults observe children’s play in a “state of wonder,” then they are present to them in a very different way: they begin to understand that they are motivated from within and persistent when approaching new challenges.

 

The adult assumed I was ready to be on the play structure when I didn’t feel physically secure there. This robbed me of my perception.

When a child approaches a new challenge like the play structure, he wants to master one thing before moving onto another, bigger challenge. Mastery helps the child understand their environment and feel secure in it. Children beyond 10 months (when depth perception develops) will not take on uncomfortable challenges. In other words, what they are interested in doing is exactly what they are ready to learn.

Going back to the play structure, a toddler might attempt to climb up one step or a few steps at a time. And then he will do it again. What is the child learning by crawling up and down the steps on a play structure over and over again? He is beginning to understand that the stairs provide consistent feedback: they continue to be solid surfaces to walk on and grasp. Repetition becomes learning. He is organizing the environment and ensuring that the stairs continue to provide this reliable feedback. This is the development of object permanence. He becomes attune to his body, understanding balance and how to move so that his center of gravity works with him and not against him. This is gross motor and fine motor development.

 

I felt vulnerable. The person who made me feel this way is my trusted attachment figure who is supposed to make me feel secure, above all else.

In extreme cases, this scenario can result in a child who feels betrayed by the adult who put them on the structure in the first place. When they are looking for you to provide comfort and security, and you instead make them feel vulnerable, it can send a confusing or mixed message. As Magda Gerber would say, caring for children is an "impossible task" and you have to try and fail. The good news is that babies are happy to try and fail, if we let them. Life is an ongoing learning experience for us all.

Being the scriptwriter of children’s play robs them of these numerous learning experiences and opportunities to problem solve. The next time you go you to playground, I encourage you to observe the children and watch how beautifully they play on their own.