Playground Rules for Grown-Ups
Updated: Mar 11
The way we teach our children to engage and interact with others on the playground can have world changing effects. But first, we might need a little reminder ourselves.
The playground can be a brutal place. The older boy that shoves you on purpose; the emboldened stare from the girl that dares you challenge her hierarchy; that terrifying decision to ask the others if you can play in their game. Today I watched this dance of the food chain as a pro active observer ready to jump in if my little one's precious heart became threatened. It’s such a balance isn’t it? Learning when to step in and when to let them figure things out on their own. But today something began clearly emerging to the surface and I decided to let it play out.
She sat on top of the platform, soaking it all in. She loves to play with others, though she doesn’t know how to ask quite yet. So she watches, and then she does what they do. She laughs, seeing if they notice her efforts to be included. Two older boys ran by her quickly, failing, whether by choice or lack of awareness, to notice she was present. A little girl uncertainly glanced her way, a bit unsure of how to interact. A young 6 year old boy stood at the top of the platform watching the older boys nearly knock her down, and his brave voice squeaked out- “Maybe you should be careful. Maybe she wants to play a different game.” The oldest looked down abruptly and startled at her proximity to his feet. The older boy responded,
“She looks like she’s sleepy, she probably can't run.”
My heart constricted but my feet remained planted. I felt led to just watch. Our brave little 6 year old friend quickly challenged him.
“No. That is how her eyes are made. She can play.”
My heart now wanted to burst, I wanted to squeeze this precious prince charming. You see, I noticed that our young hero friend most likely had experienced his own questions on the playground. His asian heritage was evident and he was quick to set the record straight on behalf of someone else. At this courageous declaration, the girl in the group walked over to me curiously and asked, “Is she sleepy or is that how she looks?” I smiled, grateful for her question. “She’s not tired, that’s how God made her eyes to look because she has something called Down Syndrome. And she would love to play with you if you ask her!” The girl smiled, “I have another friend with that too!” No longer afraid, she went to grab my little Essie’s hand and showed her how to play hide and seek tag. Interestingly, the two older boys whom had previously both ignored and belittled Esther’s capability, shrugged and accepted her into the game. After a few minutes, Esther had been fully embraced by the playground jungle that moments before threatened to scar her little soul.
This interaction left my mind spinning. What quickly surfaced was the clear distinction between the children who, at some point, had seen modeled a healthy interaction with someone different than them to some varying degree. Three specific behaviors emerged:
1. The Assumer- when we see something that looks unfamiliar, we often ignore, pretend we didn't notice and go about our business. It’s more comfortable and requires little to no action on our part. We make the assumption that “the other” does not want to be part of what we are doing and justifies the division in order to maintain the norm. Change is possible, but not preferred. Too much is at stake.
2. The Learner- when we arent sure what the story is, we observe, question and perhaps come to a conclusion, but one that can potentially be changed. This person is willing to learn, willing to ask questions. They might not know how to initially respond to a situation, but their hearts desire to find a way to learn what they don’t yet understand.
3. The Advocate- either through personal experience, a time of learning or a heart for inclusivity, this one will actively be aware of those that are being left out. They choose to see, even when it’s uncomfortable. They are not afraid to help others see as well and proactively shift the conversation in any room they are in. They see with Jesus eyes and lovingly welcome others to put on those glasses.
These of course, can be gross generalizations of an entire character and cannot as a whole cover the broad spectrum of responses to “different” that we all might experience. But in this one playground interaction, I was struck deepest by one thing. The advocate changed the story. He emboldened the learner to ask her nervous question. The Learner challenged the Assumer to be willing to change his idea. The assumer then found a new and unlikely playmate, and perhaps a new way of seeing.
Do you remember your playground jungle? I do. I will never forget the girls that bullied me about my freckles and told me I was not pretty. But I will also never forget the little girl who grabbed my hand and stole me away from them and told me I was. In fact, we are friends to this day because of it. Some of you have been ripped to shreds by those that choose not to see the way Jesus sees. Some of you were the prince charming on the platform, ready to challenge anyone who dared bully another. But I present this situation today from a different perspective. I write as a mama of one that will likely experience this brutal jungle many times over. I write to you and ask you to first be a learner. If your child has a classmate that has a learning disorder, learn about it. Learn sign language. Learn about Down Syndrome, don’t be afraid to ask. It blesses my socks off when people just ask me questions. We have nothing to be embarrassed of (we celebrate how God made her!) so please don’t feel embarrassed to ask. Once we feel free to learn, we become freer and bolder to advocate for others. Teach your children to be advocates. Remember, having special needs is not a disease. Smile. Engage. Play. You will be surprised how quickly you’ll make a new friend. As adults, children are constantly watching the way we interact with others. Do we ignore when its uncomfortable? Shift our gaze to avoid eye contact? Make quick assumptions about a situation and verbalize? Purposefully exclude so we don’t have to deal with the awkward person? Jesus held the hands of the leper. Oh friends. Children see it all. Let’s teach them how to see beautifully. Or perhaps, they need to teach us.