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.

Our Park

There’s a park two blocks from our condo in West Hollywood.  It’s not pretty like parks should be, it’s not very quiet and it’s not geared much toward kids.  The picnic tables are filled with old men smoking cigarettes and playing chess, and if you see a blanket spread out on the grass, it’s more likely a homeless person’s bed than a family’s picnic site.

But for a little over two years, it was our park.

When the kids were too young to walk, we pushed them up and down the park’s single pathway in the double stroller.  Heavyset Russian grandmas would see them and tap me on the shoulder.  They’d chatter in small groups for a moment until one of them came up with the word they were all searching for.


“Yes,” I’d say, and then they’d smile and gush with whatever other English words they knew.  “Happy!”  “Nice!”  “So… cute!”

As the kids got bigger, we checked out some of the fun things the park had to offer.

Before they could crawl, we’d let them roll around on the grass, stooping over to pick cigarette butts out of their path.

We had two rules at the park.  Don’t eat anything you pick up off the ground, and stay away from the filthy water spout.  There was a third rule, which usually went unspoken, which was that we always stayed in the toddler area.

The toddler area is about the size of a post office waiting room, only dumpier, with one double slide and a single bobbing motorcycle thing which the kids never really enjoyed. This park predated the invention of that spongy rubber stuff they put on the ground at playgrounds these days.  Instead, it was full of wood chips.  Rigid, jagged, unsteady wood chips.  When the kids fell down, it hurt.  I remember when they were just learning to walk, they would tumble over every 2 or 3 steps, their hands plunging into piles of splintery wood.  But they never complained, never cried, never stopped getting back up and stumbling forward once more.

“Someday, I’ll tell them about this,” I thought.  “When they’re feeling insecure or they don’t think they’re strong enough to make it through some challenge, I’ll tell them about the wood chips.  I’ll recount how they fell down 20, 30, 40 times and kept trying.  ‘I only wish I had your strength,'” I’ll confess.

I never let the kids out of that tiny playground.  I feared that the taste of freedom would change them forever and I’d never again be able to keep them contained.  Without that fence, they’d be loose in a world I couldn’t control, full of cars zooming past, dogs running loose and the ever-constant threat of predators, that handful of jerks in the world who’ve ruined childhood for absolutely everyone.

The day before the movers came to take us to New York, Drew came home from work early.  We were tired and overwhelmed by what was looming, but we wanted to spend the time with the kids.

We took them to the park.

“Do you realize this is the last time we’ll ever take them here?” Drew observed.

Out of habit, the kids headed for the toddler area, but it seemed silly to put any restrictions on them today.  They’d grown up at this lousy park.  Why not let their last visit here be special?  I turned to Drew.  “Let’s just let them go.”

We told the kids they were free to explore.  I don’t think they believed us at first, then Bennett took off in a flash, as if he feared we might change our minds.

He ran around corners, pushed empty swings, pressed every water fountain button and dove down onto an open field, where he rolled around in the leaves, with an expression on his face that registered something far beyond mere happiness.

Sutton padded around more methodically.  She studied her surroundings and snooped on strangers.  She rode the big kids’ slide, holding onto the sides the whole way down, because maybe it was still a bit too big.

Every few minutes, she’d realize she’d lost track of her brother, and she’d call out, “Bennett, where aaaaaaaare you?”

I felt guilty that we hadn’t done this before.  I wished I could’ve let them run free every time we went to the park.  I wished our day would never have to end, that there might be some way to hold onto this last trip to the park forever.  But as it got dark, Drew and I called out our usual warning.  “Five more minutes!”  We needed to go home and have dinner.  It was going to be our last dinner in the condo.

“Who’s coming tomorrow?” we asked the exhausted little boy and girl scurrying alongside us down Santa Monica Boulevard.

“Movers!” they shouted.

“That’s right.  And where are we moving to?”

“New Ork!”

We’d been having this conversation a lot over the previous few weeks.  We’d trained them well about what to expect in the days to come – a new house, maybe a new park, definitely heavy coats that we’d have to wear every time we went outside.  Lots of exciting new things to look forward to.

And they understood.  I really believe they did.  Even a two-year-old knows how to look ahead – to nap time, to dessert, to a visit from Grandma.  Looking ahead is easy.

There’s one thing they could never comprehend, though, not at their age, because it’s something I still struggle with myself… and that’s what it means to leave something behind.