Playground etiquette: Quaint oxymoron or the rules of civilized society?

What's in and out (behavior-wise) at local playgrounds. Photo: James Hall What’s in and out (behavior-wise) at local playgrounds. Photo: James Hall

Is there a commonly accepted “playground etiquette?” Or are playgrounds a lawless land ruled by barbaric, screaming bullies and their diaper-clad children?

Thinking back, wistfully, to my own children’s blissful playground days, I see images of radiant, round-faced, sun-screened toddlers, squealing with glee as they run, slide, and swing.

Wait! Has the ether of time wiped my memory clean of diaper blow-outs in the sandbox and that 90-degree drop down the slide at Meade Park? To bring it all back, I call on fellow parents, whose children still climb, crawl, and suck for fun.

“What is the current playground etiquette?” I ask.

I am expecting something like: Share digging utensils. Always ask a supervising adult before offering snacks. Don’t hit. Or bite.

Instead, the answers are so riddled with expletives that they are not appropriate for a kid-friendly magazine: “Don’t be an __________.” “If somebody else’s _______y kid is bugging you…” “I better stop. Seriously. This stuff gets me stupidly riled!”

We have hit upon a deeply contentious topic, rabid with emotion, judgment, conflict, and, apparently, cursing. It became clear that there are two distinct camps whose hard-held beliefs about playground etiquette are as divided as our government’s:

The bellowing, controlling, worrywarts, sometimes referred to as “helicopter” or “overprotective” parents. And the “live and let live” folks who figure kids are just gonna lose an eye or two. These are sometimes referred to as “free-range” parents.

The worrywarts believe in lots of governance, oversight, and rules. They can rattle off 100 rules of etiquette for playgrounds starting with ‘A’ for “Asphalt play demands a helmet” to ‘Z’ for “Zinc oxide your child from her ears to her toes,” with “ Double-bag used diapers” and “Purell the monkey bars” in between.

The “free-range” caregivers believe that kids should explore and experience as they have done for thousands of years (ending abruptly in the 1980s with the advent of 24-hour news coverage, which allowed for the rare incidences of child-abduction to be aired constantly, thereby ending free-roaming childhoods).

When asked about playground etiquette, free-rangers looked at me quizzically and pondered the clouds as our children bounded out of sight. Thankfully, mine were wearing neon tees.

Both camps may be the result of a backlash to their own upbringing. Being a child of the ’70s, a time when children could disappear for days at a friend’s house or in the T.V. room and nobody would bat an eye, my backlash puts me squarely in the helicopter camp.

We worrywarts can always be recognized by our enormous bags filled with nut-free, gluten-free snack items, cold washed fruit, wipes, recycled plastic bags, sunscreen, and plenty of water.

Free-range caregivers carry a phone. If number two has to happen in the woods behind the slide, dried leaves are in endless supply.

And although I consider myself a worrywart, I wanted desperately to be a free-range parent. I had imagined lying back with a book in a bucolic setting, while the children played safely and happily within earshot. But no. I was the parent reminding the kids not to climb in their Crocs, not to swing too high, and intervening in every scuffle.

“Put down that stick!”

“Please stop licking your sister.”

“Where did you get that fruit rollup?”

“Time to re-apply sunscreen!”

So, knowing that there is no consensus, I humbly offer my own, very basic, rules for playground etiquette:

Kids: Share (but not your snacks—allergies abound!); take turns; no hitting, biting, or scratching; apologize; clean up your garbage, mess, vomit (see below).

Parents: All of the above; pay attention, to your own kids and to the other kids and the adults and the teenage babysitters and the potential child-stealer lurking about (see below); no smoking.

Also, I am against sticks. Not because they are used for gun-play, but because they poke out eyes, as illustrated beautifully in David Sedaris’s cautionary tale “Cyclops.”

Questions you might have as answered by a worrywart:

What do you do if your child vomits after spinning on the seats at McGuffey Park? Take a plastic bag, and grab as much vomity mulch as you can. Toss in garbage. Then, use the cat litter technique to bury the vomit. Think back to your youth of holding up drunk friends to get past teachers at a dance and use this technique to hold your child erect as you make your escape.

What do I do if there is a playground bully? Intervene immediately. Cuddle and coo the victim. Give the offender and her caregivers a look of disgust as you cradle your child limply in your arms and apply ice liberally.

By now, you are probably thinking: “But the bully is my child!”

What do I do if the bully is my child? Bellow their name, loudly and clearly. Bellow again when they ignore you. Bellow again and begin walking towards them. Bellow again, this time adding, “if you don’t stop right now you will lose (choose one: dessert, screen-time, a limb).”

Are parents allowed to play on the play structures? No.

What if there is a seemingly unattached adult hanging around? Can I ask them for ID? I think you are legally bound. But I’m not a lawyer, just a bossy parent.

Am I allowed to bellow at other people’s children? Of course! That’s part of the job! If the parent of the target is a fellow worrywart, she will
be pleased, feel the love of a village and thank you for being involved.

If the parent is a free-ranger, she may snap a photo of you yelling and post it to Facebook with the caption: “Crazy Grandma!”—Kate Bennis

Photo: James Hall
Darden Towe Park has plenty of athletic fields, picnic shelters, the Lewis and Clark Center, a dog area, and access to the Rivanna River. Photo: James Hall

Some of the best local parks

Pen Park is my favorite park. It has vast views of the Blue Ridge, grassy knolls, great climbing structures, and swings, bike paths, playing fields, and PARKING*! Greenleaf Park includes a water spray area in the hot months, climbing structures, and swings. Greenleaf is semi-enclosed, which brings semi-relief to worrywarts like me. There is limited parking and once you get in, it is hard to turn around. McGuffey Park has been redone to be accessible for younger children. There are many chances to spin until nauseated, a basketball hoop, a sweet water area and of course it is always fun to climb on the outdoor sculptures down the hill at the McGuffey Art Center. Best to walk to McGuffey as parking is scarce. Darden Towe Park has soccer fields, tennis courts, baseball fields, picnic shelters, the amazing Lewis and Clark Center, a dog area, access to the Rivanna River, and parking* galore, but the playground, tucked between playing fields, often goes overlooked.—K.B.

*I am a refugee from a large city, so my first criteria for any outing is to find out about parking availability.