Where were you mum?

Look mum, I'm up here!

Look mum, I’m up here!

There is a perfectly good playground on the top of a hill in Canberra, and the parents are ruining it.

Through a misguided idea that all kids need to be able to do everything immediately and need to be helped to do everything, the Pod Playground today was full of helicopter parents hovering. Not just watching closely, but ‘playing’ if you could call it that. At one point this afternoon there was a log jam of fathers in among the children trying to climb the rope ladders inside the acorns to get to the corkscrew slide launch point. I looked up, horrified to see a father with his hand on the nappied bum of a tiny toddler high up in the big kids acorn equipment. This little person wouldn’t have been able to climb up on her own but her father was there, shoving her along with one hand on her bum. The bigger kids pushed past him. He persisted with his mission. Get the child to the top of the equipment. For what? So he can slide down the slide with her on his lap? To give you an idea of the scale and how high up this guy was with his tiny child, here is a shot from earlier this year.

Acorns in the air

Acorns in the air

The irony is that this is a playground is in an Arboretum. It is about nature and growth. To quote from one of its many promotional pieces, ‘the design recognises that play is a vital social development and educational tool for children of all ages, and is particularly important when it assists in forming relationships to its landscape, climate and surrounding context. The world amongst the giant seeds aims to stimulate spontaneity and creativity, to foster the imagination and to challenge and encourage confidence with growth.’

The Pod Playground has won countless prestigious design awards. It’s safer than our house. Much much safer than our backyard. People visit it from everywhere in Canberra and all over the country. It is a sought after play experience with a well thought through intent and experts in design and safety behind it. It is more than million dollars of quality play experience. And yet here are the parents of our future over-achievers with their hands all over their kids and their own bodies blocking the way.

Most of the seating was occupied today and at 11-30 in full sun. Instead I sat quietly on the concrete lid of the  electrics box near the gate. You can see it in the lower left of the photo above. It is one of the very few shady places during the middle of the day. I leaned up against the gate watching on and off as I listened to music, partly to drown out other people shouting at their children to be careful! I inwardly screamed at the mothers carrying babies without hats, and the ones called Jayden. There is a significant issue here, and it isn’t about me judging other people’s parenting, although I will freely admit to plenty of that. The babies without hats! Then there was the mother who shouted at her son, right in his face, ‘stop being a little shit.’ Aside from the obvious, stop being a little shit or what? What was she going to do if he didn’t stop? What reward would he receive if he did? All shades of wrong.* It is much more serious than that.

The mother of one toddler said to her older child, you try telling her she can’t go in there? Well indeed, but don’t give her a leg up. Let her figure it out for herself that she can’t reach the next rung of the perfectly proportioned and safe ladder. She’ll work out she can’t reach, and go and do something else, or cry or eat gravel or something that will be equally irritating to her parents.

I watched Catalyst this week and it featured a story about nature play and how important it was. The Pod Playground at the National Arboretum featured and it reminded me that we hadn’t been for a while. I filled it away as an activity to do over this solo parenting weekend. The story was about outside nature play and how children (some children) do not get enough of it, and also about how vital it is. The story emphasised kids being allowed to take risks, learn things, be themselves and most importantly be outside. As one of the academics, Associate Professor Tonia Gray, who was interviewed said, ‘taking incremental risks, such as this, allows their growth and development to occur in a gradual and sequential rate.’ What she said before that was essentially that while Pod was great, it wasn’t proper nature. She’s right, it is safe nature. So safe you’d have to really be trying.

We aren’t regulars at Pod Playground at the Arboretum for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there is very limited shade and the coffee is awful. We do go there occasionally. After today, I will think twice about it, even though Benedict really enjoys it. We have other choices open to us, actual bush for one, just 1 kilometre from our house. With real sticks and rocks. What clinched it for me today was Benedict. After being out of my sight for a good 20 minutes, I went looking for him. He was in the sand sea-saw. Where were you mum? he asked. Just over there I said. I couldn’t find you, he said, so I came over here.

I need to be there less. He needs to want to find me less. Seems to me it is really difficult to take risks and learn with someone breathing down your neck. Or in the case of this equipment, your bum in their face as they follow you through the climbing frame.


* Of course I also shout at my child but I mostly employ the crouched over fierce growling while in public.