There we were on our hands and knees, crawling across the speckled rubber confetti surface of modern playgrounds, playing peek-a-boo behind a wide pole with our 10-month old son. He had managed to hoist himself up onto the bottom of the slide – oblivious to the older kids at the top forced to abandon their next trip down – and sat expectantly waiting to be entertained. It just so happened, my husband and I were in the mood for entertaining and our peek-a-boo extravaganza began.
It only lasted a minute, as do most things with a pre-toddler baby. I am not sure what gave in first, his attention span or our knees, but he slithered off his perch and into a nearby sandbox. He plopped himself in the center and watched the older children build a small fort and play with a shovel and bucket. Then he started eating the sand.
Parenting duty called, but in between the moments of keeping him safe were moments of something wholly unexpected: playful joy. He had only started crawling a week before, so this was our first time on a playground where he could actually play. That is why we came. But then we were playing. We were playing together as a family. And we were having fun.
Raising a baby is many things, but fun is not a word you will hear often. You may hear words close to it – fulfilling, loving, enjoyable – but they are tempered with the reality that there are probably many other things a parent would rather be doing at that exact moment. That reality does not make us bad parents; it makes us grown adults who are learning how to relate to these tiny humans and in doing so, relate to the tiny human still within us.
The playground offered a new entry point for this. We could let go of schedules and feeding challenges and exhaustion (and dare I say it, a little bit of monotonous boredom) and just play together in an unstructured way. And our son led the way. Inhibited only by staying safe, he was free to explore where his interests took him. We saw new aspects of his early personality; he was drawn to structures that made noise more so than ones he could crawl on and preferred the sand to the grass. He loved spinning, with our help, and being held upside down.
What did we prefer? Without much conscious thought, we found ourselves attempting the monkey bars and balancing on the see-saw and even considered the far-too-small swing but thought better of it. Memories of elementary school recess and long, warm summer nights came flooding back with the pure rush of freedom and exploration that a playground represented when we were young.
The next day, I was in a yoga class in a more serene adult environment during the few hours a week when our son is with a nanny. At the end of class, we drew cards from an inspirational deck for quick mindful thoughts. Mine had a picture of an angel hanging upside down in the crescent of a moon with the saying, “play is the pathway to joy.”