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Life lessons from the playground

Updated on December 29, 2014

Life lessons from the playground

The playground is a wonderful place where the childhood spirit is energized. There is fun equipment to enjoy and other children to play with. It is a great opportunity to learn some valuable life lessons too. Both Mommy and child can learn a lot from the joys and the dilemmas that arise on the playground.

Dilemma #1 Getting hurt

Swings are a great childhood memory, truth be told I still enjoy the swings. (Except now it hurts my bottom and hips sitting on those small seats, they must make them smaller now than they used to…) Pumping your legs for exercise as you soar higher and higher in the sky. It is as close to flying as we may ever get. The wind in your face, the feeling in your tummy, it is a wonderful thing to swing. But now that we are older we realize the dangers that as children we did not know existed. There are the kids who get as high as they possibly can, jump off and fall to the ground possibly fracturing their arm. There is the heart pounding fear that they will swing all the way upside down and around with the possibility of plummeting to the ground. (this one I am not sure has ever happened outside of the imagination.) And the most realistic danger of the swings, the knock down. Ah yes, the kid that aimlessly wanders into the path of a leg pumping swinger only to get knocked down face first into a pile of mulch. This scenario I am quite sure happens on a daily basis at parks throughout the world. It is also the main reason many parents want to shut the swings down.

Now for the life lesson opportunity brought to us by: The Playground.

So what if Johnny does get knocked down while walking in front of a swinger? Why is this such a bad thing? No this is a good thing, this is a perfect opportunity for a life lesson, this is a parenting moment when life gets a tiny bit difficult. You as the parent now have 3 choices, only 3.

1 - You can scoop up Johnny, glare at the ignorant swinger who was not paying attention to your precious baby, and hurry him home to put ice on the boo-boo.


2 - You can help him up, brush him off and scold him for not watching where he was going letting him know that in the future he “needs to” pay attention. *(this “needs to” thing is a big pet peeve of mine, we’ll get to later.)


3 - You can fight the urge to run to his side, let him pick himself up and hope he learned the value of watching out for others by paying attention to his surroundings.

The truth is that #1 and #2 in the moment feel like parenting. Rushing to the aid of your child is an instinct, and instinctively there are 2 types of parents those who coodle and those who scold. However Mommy #3 takes home the prize for best parent award. #3 allowed her child to learn a life lesson. She empowered him to get up, dust himself off and she trusted him to go forward. All while keeping a safe watch from a distance in case he really did need her.

In most cases once little Johnny has picked himself up and gotten out of the way of the swings, he’ll find her with his eyes and in that moment, she’ll nod and smile at him with a look of pride. This will build his confidence in her because he’ll know she was near by, ready to help and in himself because she is proud he got back up. Sometimes he’ll even run over for a hug. Then he’ll go back to playing, this time watching carefully to avoid the swingers. Now your fun, healthy afternoon at the park has offered even more rewards than you had at first thought possible.

Dilemma #2 Learning about taking turns and feelings

Now that Little Johnny has run along to play, we’ll move on to the next playground dilemma, Suzy. Suzy wants to swing and having already learned not to walk in front of the swingers, she is standing next to them, about to cry. There are 8 swings in the playground, and there are 8 children already swinging on them. 3 of these swings have parents pushing their children. Suzy is 4 and hasn’t learned much about patience.

As Suzy’s mom, seeing her standing there heart broken the mother bear rises up in your heart and again you are faced with 3 choices.

#1 March over to the kids on the swings and let them know that they have been on long enough and they need to give your daughter a turn.


#2Walk the twelve steps over from where you are sitting, take her by the hand and encourage her to wait just a few moments, reassuring her she will get a turn just as soon as one of the other children are done, cheering her on as she waits that she can hold on just a moment longer for her turn will be next. (Being sure to say it all loud enough that the parents who are pushing their children and will realize that your child is waiting so they can get theirs off.)


#3 Take a deep breath. Resist the urge to fight her battles and erase all challenges from her life by planting your feet firmly in their spot, just twelve feet away and let her learn something true about life. “Good things come to those who wait.” She is not the only child in the world or at the playground and sometimes we have to take turns. What if Suzy feels sad for five minutes because there are not enough swings and she has to wait? This is a good thing. She is learning about feelings. This feeling will be important later when you teach her about respecting other’s feelings. Often we say to children, “How would you feel if you were (fill in the blank)? Only we have worked to prevent them from feeling sad so they don’t understand the analogy. This is a great opportunity to learn about empathy. Now next time you want your child to take turns, perhaps she’ll remember that feeling you allowed her to have and she won’t want another child to feel that way, making her a better person and you a better mother.

"They won't do what I want!"

Lesson for mom (& dad)

It is a nice idea and it is an instinct to want to protect your children from every ounce of sadness or pain that you can. But at some point you will fail. Disappointments come, accidents happen and pain is a part of life. While it is a part of life that we as parents want to minimize, we can not eliminate it. As a society we have gotten so worried about making certain our own child doesn't feel a moment of disappointment, we have forgotten to teach them how to deal with those feelings. Life can be disappointing. We don’t all get the part we wanted in the school play or the position on the team. We may not get the job we hoped for or the relationship we wanted. Things happen and disappointments come. Raising people who can handle it and move on to the next goal is better parenting than working overtime to make sure they never experience disappointment. Though it may seem small and insignificant these types of life lessons start on the playground. Let’s be great parents. Let’s raise children who will grown into adults who will care, who will understand that the people around them matter too. Let’s raise kids who can handle it.

Dilemma #3 Making new friends and compromising

Ah the playground. The sweet idea of children playing outside, being active and making friends. It is a great idea in theory, but we all know that is not how it really works. Not typically. That is simply the failed fantasy that makes going to the park attractive. In reality, the park is a dangerous place filled with other children. Children who have been taught that they are the center of the universe and are blissfully unaware that other people have feelings. These are the children you will undoubtedly come across. And you and your child will have to decide how to handle it.

Without getting into the “shy” debate, let’s imagine that your child is not shy and that 3 kids make fast friends on the playground and run around playing tag for 6 whole minutes laughing and having a great time. But then, minute 7 comes around. At minute 7 they are board at tag.

Jordan wants to climb the slide, Hayden wants to head for the swings and your child wants to play in the sandbox. But they all want to stay together, and that is how the argument started. Now often one child will cave and there will be a 2 to 1 ratio.

This will play out one of three ways.

#1 The odd one out will either cave and join his friends.


#2 He will run off to be on his own and do the activity he wanted.


#3 He will stomp off and pout to you that his new friends are not being very nice anymore.

This decision here will tell you some things about who your child is. It is interesting to watch these situations play out. And good parents let these things happen. Because they are learning opportunities. It also opens the door for conversations later. For example on the car ride home you can talk about the choice he made and what other choices he could have made. You can talk about being good friends and taking turns. It is an open door when you can use a situation that has happened to help teach them about the world. All good parenting choices.

But my stomach twists in knots when the parent feels the need to get involved in the situation and divulge a plan so that their child gets his way or so that everyone gets their way. When the parent chooses to get involved, this goes one of 3 awful ways….

#1 You explain to your child that if he wants to have friends, he’ll need to play along. He can play in the sand later, but for now run off with your friends.

This is a peacemakers mentality. You know he will have fun and you want him to just get along with others. But your instruction right now can be perceived as your telling him that following the crowd to have friends is the most important thing.


#2 The frustration with these other children rises up and you tell your child, “Son, if you don’t want to do what they are doing then you can just play by yourself and not play with them.”

Teaching your child “fine then.” Not the best idea. Sure no one wants their kid to be the one that caves. Maybe he won’t, but no one likes the kid who takes his ball and marches home either. This will undoubtedly set the motion for a string of failed relationships in his future. Basically you're teaching him if he doesn't get his way face it alone.


#3 Explain to the children that they can take turns. First they can go down the slide, then they can swing for five minutes followed by some fun in the sand.

While this is a great solution, and may actually be necessary for you to intervene, the best case scenario is that they figure this out on their own. Maybe they won’t today - That is alright.

We'll talk about this on the way home...

Life lessons for mom (and dad)

Life lessons that define character are not usually instant mom interventions. That is the conversation you can have with your child on the way home, and next time he is in the situation he will suggest taking turns. Maybe your child will leave the group and do his own thing, or maybe he will cave and join his friends in the activity they wanted. That is alright. On the way home talk about the different ways they could have handled it. Not that you are telling him what to do next time, but in a tone that is teaching him about choices that he may not have thought of. That is parenting. Parenting is about finding balance and guiding young lives.

As always, I hope this helps you on your journey.

Live Joyfully,

Nicole Woltz

Which Mom are you?

I love a day at the playground....

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