When my kids were little, trips to the playground were a must. Their energy expenditure was critical to my ability to make it through the day sanely, and I’m sure that they benefited from not only the fresh air and exercise, but from the time to play and explore. After they were dressed, the stroller was packed with snacks, dig toys and a beach towel, we would head off on foot to one of the many kid friendly areas in our neighborhood. One of their favorites was the ‘The Grandma Penny Park”.
This park had all the prerequitsites for toddler paradise: a climbing structure, swings, a slide, soft woodchips to land on and best of all, the merry go round. For kids who needed to test their boundaries and get their wiggles out, this was heaven. For moms, the shady bench in close proximity to the playground was a perfect place to observe-just far enough away to give the kids some freedom, yet close enough to catch them when the fell. And they always did. I was there to scoop them off, brush off the woodchips, pull out splinters, offer sippy cups full of juice, and swallow a few Goldfish crackers before testing their courage all over again. Cries of ‘Watch this, Mom’ resonated throughout the park nearly every second as my babies tested their balance, speed and courage. Playmates screamed, laughed and occasionally argued over who was going down the slide first or who got more ‘under doggies’ on the swing.
Once elementary school began, life was so much more structured. The “Grandma Penny Park’ was visited less and less, as t-ball, gymnastics, karate, rock climbing gyms and play dates because locations of paradise. Occasionally we would stop by to take a quick swing or spin, but the twice daily trips to the playground became a thing of the past. Energy was now expended in a more focused manner. Shouts of ‘Mom, check this out!’ caught my attention as my children back flipped, tucked, and shimmied down every imaginable object. Gone were the splinters and sippy cups, replaced instead with rope burns, blisters, bruises and Gatorade. Hurt feelings from learning how to navigate friendships were soothed with hugs, talks and mommy time.
These days, trips to the playground are virtually non-existent. Teens and preteens are much more likely to find their paradise ‘hanging out’ with friends downtown, at the pool or bowling alley, or gulping down a Starbucks Frappuccino before shopping. Trying to hang onto the innocence of childhood becomes a balancing act between their quest for independence and my thirst to hang on to childhood. Statements of ‘Can I hang out with my friends’ frequented our conversations. Squeezing in the family vacations before college became our mission. So many places to visit, things to teach them, and experiences we want to have as a family.
When we recently stumbled upon Fern Canyon, we were thrilled to watch our kids run, jump, swing and spin in nature’s playground. Gone were the iPods, cell phones, playmates and Facebook connections. Instead, our kids rediscovered their childhood pleasures among the fallen trees, dripping waterfalls and trickling stream. Wooden board bridges offered just enough stability to cross back and forth while presenting them opportunities to test their boundaries. Many times I called out, ‘Be careful” as one child scampered too high up a fallen log, or came close to soaking his only pair of shoes. Declarations of, ‘Watch this!” echoed down the canyon as he darted from one wet rock to another, making it safely every time. There were no swings, slides, or sippy cups in sight, just a mom, a dad and two kids creating their own bliss.
What I’ve learned is that all of us need to find our own paradise. Sometimes we need the structure of other people or events, and sometimes it takes the apparatus of a structure, or the companionship of friends. Sometimes, though, all we need is our imagination and the opportunity to unleash it.
What I’m still learning is how far away to watch, and how fast I need to rush in when they fall, as they always do. I’m learning when to hug, when to wipe the tears, and when to stand back and let them handle it on their own. Paradise found.