Writer’s Block: Lessons on the playground

Yesterday was the first day of spring. I know, the ground is still covered with snow and we’re still layering on T-shirts and sweaters to brace against the chill, but truly it won’t be long before the grasses grow, the flowers bloom and outdoor play fills children’s days once again.

Sue Austreng
Sue Austreng

The promise of the coming spring reminded me of those long-ago days of my children’s childhood and my anticipation of who they would become as adults. Flipping through the pages of my journal (dated for the year 1989) I came across the following entry that I’d like to share with you …

We’ve become expert sand castle architects. We’ve skillfully played games we thought were lost forever: hopscotch, four-square, Ring Around the Rosey and Duck-Duck-Gray Duck. With the rhythm of the turning jump rope, we’ve recited chants we haven’t heard in years.

We are the mothers of small children, children who, with the first sunny days of spring, have kicked off cumbersome shoes and itchy wool socks, wriggled their little toes in the cool, wet sand and tickled the soles of their feet on tender green grasses.

They are too young to care that rolling around in the sandbox will ruin their new summer clothes, too small to fuss about the hot sun wrinkling their skin, too little to worry that warm spring breezes will muss their carefully combed hair.

And they are often too immature to consistently demonstrate the gracious art of cooperative play, of taking turns, of sharing.

But as my children play with each other and with their little friends, they are practicing those traits, testing them and learning to live in harmony and fairness with their playmates – little people who may someday be classmates, office partners, neighbors or colleagues in the business world.

This afternoon I witnessed the testing of these behaviors while watching one of my kids and one of the neighbor kids playing on the swing set, a simple apparatus that consists of one lawn swing, one glider swing, one slide, and one trapeze bar.

Well my kid and the neighbor kid (who shall both remain nameless in order to protect the innocent – and the guilty) each wanted to impress the other with daring feats on the trapeze bar.

And they both wanted to be the first to amaze and astound the other.

They each clung to the bar, fists tight, knuckles white, staring each other down.

“I get to go first!”

“I had it first! I get to go first!”

“It’s my swing set! I get to go first!”

As I stood at the kitchen sink, watching all this through the window as I washed the lunchtime dishes,  I clenched my teeth and secretly willed my kid to let go of the trapeze bar, to give in, step back and politely/generously/selflessly let the neighbor kid go first.

My kid didn’t budge.

The other kid didn’t budge.

My heart sank as I pictured my kid as an adult, unwilling to compromise, living a secluded, lonely, disconnected life …

Just then, the neighbor kid let go of the bar, stepped back and said, “You can go first and I’ll watch. Then I’ll go and you watch. Then pretty soon we’ll forget who goed first.”

Well, that afternoon, my kid learned something from the neighbor kid. The neighbor kid demonstrated wisdom and maturity, cooperation and sharing. The neighbor kid gave in and made peace; taking the first step, no matter who was right or wrong.

My kid’s mother learned something that day, too. No matter how diligently I teach the lessons of “love one another” and “do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” there will be times when my kids will act like kids.

But that’s what childhood and child’s play is all about. It’s about testing the lessons of good behavior, trying them and sometimes failing but always learning – learning to live and play together in harmony.

Sometimes those lessons are best taught by playmates rather than by parents.

The social skills learned in the sandbox and on the playground will someday be practiced in the classroom and in the office. And hopefully, lessons learned will be lessons kept and my children will grow up to become gracious and loving, generous and kind young adults.

Time will tell.

(And time did tell: those little kids of mine did indeed grow up to be fine, caring and compassionate adults, even if I do say so myself!)

Sue Austreng can be reached at [email protected]