When my children were toddlers, I can remember cringing when we arrived at the playground to find it teeming with “big kids” — usually elementary school-age kids or older, all of them bigger, louder, faster, and pushier than my two little toddlers wobbling their way around the play equipment like wayward penguins. They shouted too loud, they ran too close, they managed to stand directly in the line of sight between my wandering children and me. With two little ones who had (and to some degree, still have) a tendency to wander, I often viewed the presence of distracting, obstructing older children as an annoyance and often felt like a direct threat to my children’s safety.
But over the past few years, something happened. My children grew less wobbly. Eventually, they learned to stay in one general area most of the time. They grew more confident.
They grew up.
They’re five now. Not very grown up in the overall scheme of things, except suddenly, they’re looking more and more like big kids and not squishy toddlers. They’re shouting loud and running fast. They’re keeping up with the older kids at the playground, joining their games, starting new games and recruiting participants.
Suddenly, my tiny, wobbling penguin babies are pushing up against the boundaries of the years of “early childhood.” They’re not so tiny anymore. Their legs look impossibly long as they race from one end of the playground to the other. My daughter scales a rock climbing wall with no hesitation. My son’s feet reach the ladder rungs that last year were too widely spaced.
The library story times and playgroups I previously wanted to join when they were toddlers are nearly behind us. My kids are rapidly aging out of the prime 3-5 age group of weekday events. We never actually made it to any of them, and even though my kids could still squeak by, I’m realizing I no longer want to bother. I think we would all feel out of place. My kids crave the opportunity to run wild and free, making up elaborate games of their own, seeing how fast their strong and certain big kid legs can carry them. I crave the space to let them.
My kids are becoming the big kids.
On school days, out in public with other children, my kids are suddenly some of the oldest. Summer finds us rolling out of bed around the time most little-kid events start. We usually make it out of the house around the time the toddler and preschool crowd is heading home for naps.
My kids still look so little to me, but to the toddler and preschool crowd, they’re anything but small. They’re big, they’re intense, they’re loud. They play exuberantly and wildly and devise elaborate schemes. On any given weekday, it’s no longer quite as easy for my son to find a peer to keep up with his imaginary play.
But on the days the big kids are there… they’re in their element. They blend in with the crowd of children. They play tag and hide and seek and create more complex and lasting games.
Suddenly, I’m no longer the parent cringing at the loud, raucous play of the “big kids,” instead, I miss them when they are gone. I actually like having them around. They’re able to keep up with my kids and able to challenge them. They keep them entertained. Ideally, they keep them running and hopefully tire them out for bedtime.
They also help to keep them in line. I watched with fascination as I saw a side of my daughter that I’d never seen before. She was watching a group of tween girls play a game and they invited her to join them. She was uncharacteristically shy, and she hung back, wanting to fit in. I watched as they patiently explained their game. To my surprise, my daughter actually followed the rules established by the other girls. Even more surprising, I watched her accept losing because the big girls showed her how to take it in stride.
Even the “big kids” still need to play.
Free play gives children the opportunity to create their own worlds, establish rules for their own games, and learn to navigate social situations. These are skills they will need to use as adults, and they are being tested and practiced during play. Imaginative play develops empathy as children have the opportunity to “try on” different roles, and explore emotions and social roles.
That’s just a brief list of some of the benefits — and that’s not to mention the obvious benefit from the physical activity of running, climbing, and swinging outside.
I saw an internet thread recently that turned to complaints about big kids at the playground. One of the complaints included outrage at the audacity of a six-year-old. Six years old. Who are playgrounds made for, if not for six-year-olds? Most of the signs I’ve seen on play structures indicate the equipment is for ages five through twelve. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve usually only noted these signs to disregard them). I expect that my children will have mastered every nook and cranny of our local playground by age 12, but I hope they will still be able to enjoy playing and running around the playground, creating their games and inviting other children to join in.
My hope is that they’ll be the type of big kids that other kids have been to them. Older peers who patiently let the younger kids join in their games. Friends who willingly assume the role of Darth Vader or a Tyrannosaurus Rex when asked. I hope that they too will someday explain the rules of a game to a shy little girl, expecting her to follow them while also whispering to their friends, “Okay, now let her hit the ball once.”
I hope they’ll take on the role that other older kids have played for them. The gift of a peer but also the challenge that comes from being just slightly ahead.
This year, as school lets out and the playgrounds and parks repopulate with the over-five crowd, I’m not cringing. Welcome back to the playgrounds, big kids. We’ve missed you.