9 Unwritten Rules of the Playground

Nobody ever tells you the Rules of the Playground.  I’m not talking about “No littering” or “No loitering after dusk, teenagers!”  Not the kinds of rules you might actually find posted in a public park.

I mean the unspoken code among parents that governs everything that occurs on surfaces made of asphalt, spongeturf or wood chips.  A trip to the playground is like having a playdate with whoever shows up.  Unless everyone agrees to a few ground rules, things can quickly devolve into a shrunken simulation of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

I’ve decided to take it upon myself to write down these implied rules, as best as I understand them.  Granted, there may be a bit of wishful thinking thrown in.  Here goes:

1.  Everything you bring is communal property.

It’s not just polite to share, it’s the only practical way to do things.  I’m not going to check every toy my kid picks up to make sure it belongs to us.  I’m also not going to shout at them, “Don’t touch that dump truck until we track down its owner and ask permission!”  You brought it, you share it.  If it’s not being used, my kids and I are going to assume it’s up for grabs.  The same goes for the junk we brought.  When my kids get bored with it five seconds into our trip, it’s all yours.  Enjoy.

2.  It’s your responsibility to round up all your toys when you leave.

Yes, my kids played with your toys, but they’re your toys, so when you’re ready to leave, good luck finding them.

If you don’t like having to round up a hundred things, don’t bring a hundred things.  Kids really don’t need that much stuff anyway.  How many hands do your kids have?  Mine have two.  That’s two toys each, and maybe a ball for their feet.  If they get bored with those, then thankfully, they’re at a park so there’s a good chance they can find something else to do.

And don’t be a dick if some kid is playing with your stuff when you’re leaving.  Bend over and say, “Hey, thanks for taking such good care of our lobster sand mold.  It’s time for us to go now, so we need to pack that in our stroller.  Do you want to play with that shovel over there instead?”  When the kid turns to look, grab the lobster and make a break for it.

3.  If you bring it, label it.

You know that bucket of sand toys you got at Target for $3.99?  Yeah, we all have that exact same set, and it gets confusing.  Put your initials or your kid’s name on it so we know whose is whose.  Think of it like branding cattle.  Come up with a family logo if you want.  Have a blast.

4.  If you can’t bear to share it, leave it at home.

Some parents and kids think their toys are exempt from the communal property rule.  “But it’s Madison’s special Pocahontas doll — it’s like her daughter!”  Sure, I get it, but try explaining that to my two-year-old.  There’s nothing I hate more than when my kid throws a fit because they want to play with some other kid’s toy.  I don’t want them playing with that toy anyway.  I brought them to the park so they could run around and get some exercise.

Other than sand toys or things that can only be enjoyed at the park, I suggest you don’t bring any toys from home.  I don’t get why some parents let their kids bring their favorite Princess Jasmine or Lightning McQueen thingamajig to the park.  It’s a park.  The park is the toy.

If your kid brings her entire Disney Princess collection, then suddenly my kids don’t want to go on the slide or play hide and seek.  They want to sit on their tushies and play with a bunch of crap they could’ve played with at home.  If your kid won’t share, that just adds insult to injury.  Now I have a kid who isn’t getting any exercise and who’s screaming her head off because she can’t play with your kid’s lousy toy.  Screw you.

5.  If you can’t bear to lose it, then definitely leave it at home.

Last winter, a woman came up to me as we were leaving an indoor playground.  “We can’t find the purple car,” she said.  “The one she was playing with.”  She pointed to my daughter.  I already had the kids’ shoes on, and they were zipped up in their coats and most importantly, I’m not the idiot who brought a bunch of toys to a room full of toys.  (Toys which we were paying to play with, no less.)  I took a quick, half-assed look around for the stupid car, but honestly, I really didn’t care if she never saw it again.  I know, she and her kid were very courteous about sharing with my daughter, but like I said, if you bring it, it’s your responsibility. Take a look around.  It’ll turn up.  Or not.  Screw you.

When I go to the park, I bring a couple of plastic buckets and shovels, and maybe a playground ball.  Grand total: less than $10.  Even in this economy, I can afford to take that kind of hit.  If something breaks or someone walks off with one of our toys by mistake, I can easily replace it.  This is another reason not to bring your kid’s favorite thing.

6.  Your kids are your own responsibility, so don’t look to me for help.

Everyone has different rules for their kids.  Maybe you let your two-year-old scale the ten-foot-high rock wall.  Hey, you must have better medical insurance than me.  It’s not my business.  Just because your kid is doing something dangerous, I’m not going to step in, especially when I have two kids of my own to keep out of the emergency room.

It’s not that I don’t care about your kid’s well-being.  I’m going to make sure I don’t hit him with a swing, but it’s not my job to protect him from all booboos in my vicinity while you chat it up with your friends or play Angry Birds or whatever people do on their cell phones for hours at a stretch — seriously, what’s with you people?  If your kid is teetering off the edge of something and my kid is about to eat a bug, sorry, but my kid comes first.  I’ll save your kid’s life if I have a second left over.

By the way, it’s a public park.  You ever watch the news?  Ever heard about the things that happen to kids whose parents aren’t watching them every freaking second?  Yeah, it sucks that you never get a second to sit down and rest, but having your kid end up as an Amber Alert sucks worse.

I’m not saying you can’t ever check your email, but do it quickly.  You want to relax?  Stay home and lock your doors.  If you’re in an open area full of strangers, you’re on duty.  Look alive.

7.  Down the slide has the right-of-way.

Sure, going up the slide is fun.  It’s rebellious.  It’s a challenge.  If I see your kid going up a slide, I’m probably gonna think he’s pretty cool.  But if some other kid decides he wants to come down that slide, your kid better move his ass, fast.  In the war of up versus down, gravity wins, every time.

Oh, and those covered twisty slides are one-way only.  If your kid dares to climb up one and mine flies down like a torpedo, careening around a bend completely unexpectedly and laying your kid out on the asphalt, so be it.

8.  You are the policeman for your child.  I am the bodyguard for mine.

I’ve written about this topic before.  If your kid is being a menace, it’s time to take him or her home.  Yeah, I know, you packed a picnic and planned to stay for two hours.  Well, too bad.  If he can’t stop punching or pushing or pulling hair, he’s not welcome here anymore.  Teach him a lesson — or not, just get your lunatic away from my kid, pronto.

You don’t have to be embarrassed.  Even the best behaved kids can go nutso sometimes.  Maybe they’re tired or pumped up on sugar or trying to get somebody’s attention.  We’ve all been there.  It’s only if you ignore the situation that the rest of us will think you’re a terrible parent.

“But wait!” you say.  “My other kid is playing nicely!  It’s not fair to punish them both!”  Well, why not find another way to reward the good kid?  “We need to go home now, guys.  Everyone who doesn’t have another kid’s flesh wedged under his fingernails gets ice cream.  Sorry, Johnny!”

If you’re going to keep your psycho at the park, you’d better be all up in his business from now on.  My kid’s blood is on your hands.

Yes, per Rule #6, you don’t have to protect other people’s kids from falling off a slide or getting carried off by a predatory hawk, but you do have to protect them from your own kid.

9.  Unless somebody’s crying or bleeding, it’s not a fight.

Knowing when to step in is only half of it.  You also have to know when not to.  You’ve heard the saying about picking on someone your own size?  Well, that goes for you, too.  When you try to mediate a dispute between kids, you’re not an impartial judge, more like a lawyer for your offspring.  So whenever possible, let them work it out.

So you just saw a kid push a smaller kid out of his way and cut in front of him for the weird flying fish bobble contraption?  Your instinct tells you to jump into the fray and teach everyone right from wrong.  But hey, if the kids are cool with what went down, why rock the boat?

Kids don’t always realize when another kid is being an asshole.  If you step in and tell your kid to stand up for himself, then you’re introducing shame to the situation, or showing him that he needs Mommy or Daddy to solve his problems for him.

Besides, injustices occur on the average playground at the rate of about a ten per second.  You can’t possibly police them all, so wait until there’s a safety issue or a really serious offense, then lay the smack down.

I know, your kid pushed mine, and you’re mortified.  But if my kid’s willing to let it go, then so am I.

Go finish your Angry Birds game.


What do you think?  Anything I missed?  Leave me a comment below, or hit me up on Twitter or Facebook to share your thoughts.

57 comments on “9 Unwritten Rules of the Playground

  1. I love it. Blunt and straight to the point, yet practical 🙂 At almost 11 months, my Little Mister is just entering the world of play and I’m going to be on a big learning curve when it comes to this stuff! I love your blog, by the way! You can call me a new regular reader!

    • Yes, that’s what I’m thinking. I know the odds are slim, but frankly, it’s not worth the risk.

      The important thing, in my opinion, is not to let the kids know how paranoid I am about them getting abducted. Let them think they’re roaming freely, but always be aware of where they are.

  2. Classic. There should be another rule : keep your advice to yourself. I brought my 6month old to an indoor play space- to the “infant mat with the baby mirror”. Anyways the broad told me “Don’t you think you should take her home, its quite to stimulating.” Screw you.

  3. I love this post- especially rule 9- spot on. I must admit though that I am one of those mothers who allows her child one favourite toy, which he does not have to share. My kid has certain toys which he is protective of and I don’t mind that- but I understand your point- he shouldn’t take them to the park. Maybe we will have this discussion net we plan a trip to the park. Thanks for the advice.I definitely will keep it in mind 🙂

    • I’m glad you agree. I know how stubborn kids can be and how important it is to pick your battles. I cave on clothing all the time. I let them wear short-sleeved shirts with no jacket even if I think they’re going to be cold. I’ll just bring a jacket along in case they change their mind. For some reason, my kids have just never insisted on bringing toys to the park. We’ve always been on the other side of it, where they want to play with some other kid’s toy. I’ll try to be more understanding, too. 🙂

  4. Park -and Rec need to just post a generic sign at the entrance:


    mommyman you are doing a great job. Over twenty years ago I used a similar set of rules…….my kids turned out great!

  5. Great post, and I wholeheartedly agree with most of your rules (most especially 1 & 9!). But I follow slightly different rules, especially re 2 (and 5, which sounds very similar to 2). If my kid spends a lot of time enjoying a toy brought by someone else, I don’t just leave it where he drops it when he’s done. I will try to return itto the owner and thank him/her. I agree that, ultimately, it’s the owner’s responsibility to keep track of and round up his/her own toys, but that doesn’t mean I should have the same (lack of) manners as a three year old, or that I shouldn’t do my part to help. I appreciate it when a parent returns a toy to me that their child enjoyed, and I always try to do the same (if possible).

    Also, while I try to live by rule 4 in all respects, I do know kids who are extremely shy and extremely attached to a toy they CANNOT leave the house without. A close friend’s daughter cannot go anywhere without her pink stuffed cat. She wouldn’t get to go to play places or parks if she couldn’t bring it along. Her mother tries to keep it hidden at those places, but sometimes her daughter needs to hold the cat for a while to give her the courage to join the others in the sandbox. If another kid wants to grab the cat and hold it too, I think it’s legitimate for my friend to explain that this is a very special toy and direct the kid to one of the myriad other toys scattered around. Not ideal, sure, but necessary.

    Oh, and re rule 7 – my son is an up-the-slide-kid. But if he gets whacked by a down-the-slider, so be it. It’s the price ya gotta pay, sometimes!

    • Thanks for the perspective. I agree that it’s preferable to return toys to the owner when possible, but we don’t always know whose toys we’re playing with, and when we leave, we’re too busy rounding up our own toys, putting on coats, etc. I’m prepared to scout out my toys when I leave, and I think it’s better to go in with that mentality.

      I admit I should probably be a little more sensitive to kids who need their special toys. Most of the time, that’s not what we’ve encountered. It was just some girl who brought a doll stroller or a boy with a bunch of cars.

      And I think all kids are inherently up-the-sliders — or at least they become that way when they see other kids doing it. I’m cool with my kids doing it, too, as long as they understand the risk. 🙂

  6. Excellent rules. Although I have to admit – to my shame – that I too often fail number 9. Generally because I feel like I have to tell my little monster to behave. Lawyer for the opposite party. Who’s perfect?

    • I failed #9 just this morning. We were at a kiddie museum, and Bennett hit a girl who came over to play with the blocks he was using. It was just a gentle brush on the arm, and she didn’t even seem to mind, but I totally flipped out on him. “WE NEVER HIT!!! TELL HER YOU’RE SORRY!!!” That whole spiel. I want him to get the message before he really hits someone, but I also want to let the other parents know I’m not going to let that kind of stuff slide.

      It’s much easier to overlook someone else being a jerk to your kid (at least when your kid doesn’t get upset about it) than it is to let your own kid get away with something.

  7. These should be handed out in the pediatrician’s office at the 12 month appointment. A corollary, based on today’s bizarre park experience: don’t mix me up in whatever weird object lesson you’re trying to teach your kid. I had a random mom get upset with me because I helped her son on the swing (he asked me) and she tells me I interfered with this whole confidence/self reliance program she’s got him on where adults don’t help. Uh huh.

    • How dare you help that child, Amy! What’s wrong with you? 😉

      OK, that mom is well within her rights to use whatever batshit program she wants on her kid, but she can’t expect everyone else in the world to know her philosophy. Maybe don’t bring him to a park where other parents will be, or keep a closer watch on him so you can intervene sooner. I imagine she got upset with at least 10 other parents that day for similar infractions.

  8. Good points. We have experienced some of those things at a pool on vacation. People if you walk away from your toys to get a bite to eat, don’t get mad if my kid is playing with them when you get back, since he found them just floating there. If you have to leave and want them back, ask nicely. Kids see toys just sitting there, kids grab toys and start playing with them.

  9. As someone who supervises small children as part of my job every day, thank you.

    When you are in a classroom with 25 other children, your favourite toy definitely needs to stay at home or in your backpack (my son, 23 years old TODAY, always needed something special to get through his day, but he knew that the best place for it was in his backpack. Zipper done up. Safe but close).

    Sharing space with others is something that children do need practice at and allowing them to figure out the everyday situations on their own is going to be as important to their well being as getting fresh air. Your rules allow parents to not be helicopters, hovering over their child every second, but encourages them to be engaged observers.

    I really would like to write the rules for parents on how to treat your child’s teachers and caregivers – number one: treat others how you would like them to treat your child.

    • I would love to read your list!

      My kids’ teacher has a rule. If a kid wants to bring a toy from home to school, they can only take it out during free play time, and they have to share it with everyone.

      My daughter usually insists on bringing a My Little Pony or Scooby Doo to school. It seems silly when you think of how many toys there are at school, but I think it’s just fun for her to have something in her backpack. I just remind her of the teacher’s rule, and she agrees to abide by it. So far, we haven’t had any problems.

  10. How about when an older kid blocks the way to the slide/playhouse/jungle gym and says aggressively, “She can’t play here. It’s mine.” And I just want to move the little A-hole out of the way and say “bite me” but then I remember that he or she is just a little kid and so I can’t say “a-hole” nor “bite me” and I really can’t just move the little a-hole out of the way?

    • Yes, I hate that! I was always quick to brand those kids bullies, but now that my son has gotten a little older, I have to admit I’ve seen him behave that way himself. It’s mortifying, and I always step in and take the other kid’s side.

      • Navigating the playground is so stressful. Thanks for establishing some rules!

  11. As a mum of two iv come across these rules to often but even when iv had names on things iv had parents try blah it. But my sons name is spelt kierren-jack and youngest is Kai-Rhys so not often have someone with same name. There also have rule iv come across if you make a big deal about your child bleeding due to another child the other parent has all right to blame you some how. In my case it’s been oh he’s just not used to proper ruff and tumble what with you being a single disabled mum( no he’s just not used to spoilt brats kicking him because they don’t know what no means). And any parent there has right to judge you no matter if they don’t even know your name. Keep on blogging as this is a funny and helpful blog iv enjoyed reading.

      • sadly i have found that disablity still is looked at as a hadship and not part of a person. like the fact that when i was going to collage the tutors where fighting to have me on there course as a dissabled person means more funds and points makes them look better.

  12. Omg I loved this. I also agree with everything you said. I am a nanny of two kids (4 and 2) and the worst thing for me is having to leave a park because of the unsafe way other children are behaving and their parents lack of concern! Well said!!!!

  13. Your blog is awesome!! My sister and her partner are trying to have a kid so I sent her this blog for her to read. Everything you say sounds like something that would come out of her mouth so I love reading it! Thanks for the laughs and insight on parenting.

  14. I like all of these except the last half of 6. My niece is 7 and nephew 4.5, I often take a book to read when we go to the park. They don’t need me hovering over them – they are there to play with each other and any other kids. My niece head butted a lady that decided she was too young to do penny drops and tried to physically stop her. Then I got a lecture about how dangerous penny drops are, and how the kids could have been kidnapped. She just bloodied an adult’s nose and she could be kidnapped.

    Stranger kidnappings are very rare. When people bug me about this I ask them how many people do you personally know that were kidnapped by strangers? I have never had someone answer they personally knew a child kidnapped by strangers. Molested by family, clergy, scoutmasters sure – but never strangers.

    The kicker is I did have a schoolmate kidnapped for ransom. She remembered the self defense we were taught in PE – and was rescued by 2 elderly ladies. (She bit the guy, threw herself to the ground kicking up, and screamed I don’t know you – you took me from my brother). People really hate it when I point out that statistically they are the most likely to murder their children. Our parents responded by a) asking the school to review the safety program before each long holiday, and when we got back from Winter Break. b) a drive to put sidewalks in the neighborhood, so that kids weren’t walking on the street. (The fact that there were several near accidents that could have been serious including me being forced off the road down a steep, deep ditch by a school bus, helped with the sidewalk hike and bike trail being built. )

    • I know the odds are slim, but the worst case scenario is so unthinkable that I’m going to continue to watch my kids VERRRRRY closely in public. I try not to let them know I’m watching them, but I’m always watching. Believe me, I’d prefer to be reading a book. When I want some quiet time to myself, I either take it during their nap or turn on the TV for a bit. When we’re out in public, I’m on guard. Always.

  15. Oh man. Hysterical! I have seen this played out almost exactly with the toys. We are a 2 dad family in Jersey City of our 10 month old. Just stumbled accross you blog and LOVE it. Thanks

  16. Absolutely brilliant post. I can identify with all of it having been a kind of stand in step parent for a while. Having input from both divorced parties’ families (aunts, uncles, grandparents, step-grandparents too) gave them conflicting messages on behaviour and I always seemed to be the one expected to sort out the mess.
    Keeping the peace at home was bad enough, but when you’re out, it’s another kettle of fish. We’d go swimming or down to the playing field for a game of football, or even just shopping, but I told them both that they only had to play up and embarrass me ONCE, and I would never take them anywhere again. It seemed to work until they were older and the youngest pushed his luck. Of course I was the villain then and unless Dad was with us as a family (extremely rare, he was more interested in going down the pub), outings stopped. Ho hum.
    As for not interfering and letting the little darlings sort it out for themselves, you are SO right. I have the same philosophy with dogs!

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