Updated: March 21, 2021
Of all the battles that occur on playgrounds around the nation, few can be more contentious than this age old question:
“Is it okay for kids to climb up the slide the “wrong way”?
It seems like this is one of those kinds of questions that no one is lukewarm on. Either you are the kind of parent who makes sure their kids always climb up the stairs and down the slide, or you are an “anything goes” hands-off parent. To those on the “Up the Stairs Down the Slide” side of the line, kids that climb up the slide part of the slide instead of going “correctly” up the stairs are decried as miscreants and ruffians intent on ruining everyone’s fun. To those on the “Anything Goes” side, hollering at kids to use only the stairs constitutes unnecessary hovering and micromanagement.
So I’ll stake my claim here…. in this great playground battle, I am firmly in the “let them play how they want” camp. Life has so many rules, and kids have so many other parts of their lives that they have to sit still, pay attention, and conform to a specific set of norms and values. I feel like the playground should be one of those last spaces where kids can be free to be kids: to play creatively, to use their bodies, and to have unstructured fun. Therefore, with very few exceptions, I try to avoid telling my kids how to play on the playground and give them the freedom to use the playground equipment in whatever manner they see fit.
As long as they are not causing a clear and present danger to themselves or others, or violating a specific written rule of a particular area, I reject the idea that there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” to play, especially on a playground.
I want to encourage my kids to use their imagination, test their bodies, and develop problem solving and conflict resolution skills. This is difficult to do when they have adults directing how they do such as basic thing as access a slide.
Before you throw tomatoes through your computer screen, hear me out. I promise my kids are not running hoodlums on the playground. They understand that they are not the only ones there, and that they need to respect the rights of others to play and have fun. They understand that there are rules and norms of play and that they need to behave in ways that are safe and considerate of others. They recognize that they need to watch out for kids smaller than themselves. Like any kid they make the occasional poor choice, but on the whole they are kind and play well with others.
There are a lot of reasons that I try not to police my kids’ play. I want them to learn how to navigate situations on their own. I want them to test their own abilities and figure out what they can and can’t do. Besides that, I think there are some real benefits to letting kids do things like climb up the slide, and research backs me up.
Research-Backed Benefits of Climbing Up the Slide
Climbing up a slide is risky, and there is a real potential for injury. As a parent I know my first instinct is to protect my children from injury in all situations, but more and more research is showing that taking age appropriate risks in play has real benefits for a child’s personal and emotional development. Life is full of risks, and learning to assess and engage in risk taking behavior is an important part of development. Children who are prevented from experiencing age appropriate risks may have difficulty learning to master challenges and develop coping skills for stressful situations, and may have more anxiety in stressful situations in the future.
Peer interaction and conflict resolution
When my kids climb up the slide instead of using the ladder, they have to understand that they are doing something that may be unexpected to others around them. It is their responsibility, therefore, to be aware of their surroundings and notice if someone is waiting at the top to come down. If they don’t, they may very well get hit by the child coming down the slide, or they may have to deal with an angry friend who had been waiting his turn. Practicing these environmental observation and communication skills on the playground may come in handy when navigating more complicated conflict situations.
Doing hard things
There is a ton of evidence that success in life is less influenced by a person’s intelligence or talent than their ability to stick things out and persevere in the face of challenge. “Grit” or determination to succeed, seems to be what separates out those people who simply get by from those who are truly great in their chosen fields.
Climbing up a slide is hard, maybe really hard–depending on the incline and what is available to grab onto. I’ve watched my kids work for the better part of an hour at scrambling up a really steep slide, falling time and time again, until finally emerging red faced, proud, and victorious at the top. If they can learn that kind of stick-to-it-ness on the playground I hope they can carry it with them to the classroom.
Core strengthening and vestibular development
We all know that kids don’t move as much as they used to. School demands more desk time than 20 years ago, and kids have more choices of recreational activities that may or may not be active. And just like sitting too much affects adults negatively, kids feel the effects of a sedentary lifestyle as well.
There is some thought that increasing rates of ADHD and hyperactivity may correlate to this lack of movement in childhood. When kids don’t have the opportunity or motivation to move, use their muscles, and experience movement in all kinds of ways, they may have difficulty paying attention and focusing. Having improved core strength can improving the ability to learn and do well in school. Physically challenging activities like climbing up the slide encourage all kinds of muscle usage and require kids to move their bodies through space in a very deliberate manner.
So I’ve staked my claim: I will let my kids continue to climb up the slide if that’s how they choose to play on a given day. I won’t tell them that their way of playing is wrong, or that anyone else needs to play exactly like they do. I do promise that I will continue to make sure that they respect the rights of others to play safely and confidently in the same space, and that if they get knocked down while doing something unexpected, they can come to me for a hug and love but very little sympathy.
After all, life has risks, and choices have consequences. Sometimes climbing up the slide means the kid at the top won’t see you and will run you over. But sometimes it means after a lot of hard work you get to look down proudly from your accomplished goal.
What do you think? How do your kids play on the playground?
Related: Check out the Best Parks and Playgrounds in the Iowa City Area.
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