This past Sunday, I took the family to a large local park for the afternoon. The park features one of those 1990’s-era wooden playscapes with lots of room to run and jump and climb. The kids always enjoy visiting these playgrounds. Kender is finally getting good at taking off and exploring on his own, and the older kids like practicing their parkour skills.
This week, the older kids had the opportunity for a special treat: a group of college-aged traceurs were visiting the playground for practice. These traceurs were very impressive to see in person, and for us it was our first chance to see these kinds of feats being performed live. They would practice precision jumps from a platform to a bench or wall, hold themselves out sideways like a flag from the firemen’s pole, or just do handstands. All of the young men were very nice and polite, looking out for the little kids running around them. A couple of kids came up to interact with them. I recall one young preschooler who looked like Kender, with big blonde curls all over his head, who looked like he wanted to try a particular jump. The traceur he was imitating came over and played with the kid, making him laugh and making sure he didn’t do anything to get hurt.
Which made me all the more shocked and astonished when I realized that one of the parents on the playground was trying to kick the young men out.
At first, I didn’t recognize what was going on. The father was barely older than the traceurs, dressed similarly in sweats and a t-shirt. Then I heard part of his tirade about how the playground was only for little kids. The traceurs tried to avoid conflict, gathering their belongings and moving away from the main play structure. The father then called 911, trying to get the police to come! Thankfully, they apparently blew him off.
Oh, the horror! Adults on a playground! Skilled adults, showing children how to be active and capable and healthy!
This incident is just the latest example I’ve seen of the age barriers our society is erecting around our children, barriers that seem to grow taller now by the year. When I was a child, I remember playing at recess with children of all ages, everybody at the school. I remember looking up at sixth-graders in awe, thinking how grown-up they seemed from the perspective of a second-grader. A quarter-century later, my own third-graders were told they could not play with a second-grade friend at recess. Earlier this year, my 13-year-old daughter saw a younger child get pulled out of a game of tag by her mother, with the mother saying that the younger child shouldn’t be playing with those older kids.
I see other areas where people just assume that every child should only be playing with other children of the exact same age, and something must be wrong if they don’t. This idea that started with factory-style education, separating children by birth year rather than ability in an effort to create a more efficient education system, this unnatural segregation is starting to infect every area of our culture. Even in homeschooling circles, where we usually celebrate our children’s freedom to interact with other children and adults of all ages, genders, abilities or disabilities, etc., I have seen mothers bemoaning their children’s lack of “peer” friends…even if that child has plenty of friends who don’t happen to be the same age.
I started school early, and spent my time through 10th grade as the youngest child in my class by a year or so. I went on to start college at 15 and missed being the youngest student on campus by only a few months thanks to another young TAMSter. I am really concerned by the notion that it is somehow dangerous for younger children to associate with older children or young adults. As a young adult, dealing with the stresses of growing up, I used to spend evenings on playgrounds, just moving around on the monkey bars and slides, letting my mind be occupied by the physical activity. I am concerned by the idea that an adult using a playground in exactly the same way children use the playground is suddenly somehow dangerous.
What kind of adults do we turn out, when they spent all their formative years being told, “You must only spend time with people your age, and you must only learn from certified adults who do not play like you do”? What are we losing, as a society?