September 03, 2008

Encouragement, not impatience, is needed on the playground

As some of you know, I'm a mom of a child with Autism. I've written before about the value of playgrounds in my son's life. Now I want to tell you about the importance of sharing those playgrounds with all kinds of kids, mine included.

Playgrounds are the last great bastions of egalitarianism. At least that's what I'd like to think. My hope is that all parents realize that kids, of all abilities and disabilities, are at some point going to share the same playspace as their child, and because people are so vastly different, that we as adults need take the time to see the dynamic that is happening right in front of us. If you see a child who is struggling, don't just walk away, give that child an emotional boost by saying, "You can do it." Or better yet, tell your child to encourage the child with the disability. Children are greatly encouraged by peers.

Just last week my son was at a playground and using the equipment and he was struggling mightily to reach the top as the other boys were doing. He was loudly asked to step down by the boy's parents who wanted their children to have unfettered access. My son was just too slow for them. It became obvious to me that while he probably had the skills to succeed, he didn't have the confidence. I cheered him on, but the family who had no concept of sharing kind of blew the wind out of his sails by asking him to step down. No amount of encouragement on my part would do.

Then in an ironic twist of fate, after the clueless family left, two brothers and their mom and dad showed up and, noticing my child's struggle, started encouraging him. I had been doing this for about half an hour, to no avail, but as soon as these boys and their parents started to cheer him on, he succeeded. It took only two more attempts and he accomplished the feat of reaching the top of the structure.

It was amazing what happened next. The family of strangers started to clap and cheer for my son and he started to shout, "I did it!" I cannot thank this family enough for seeing something in my son that others that day had missed because of their tunnel vision.

Thank you to the family of strangers for encouraging a child who just needed a little boost. My thought for you today is to remember, playgrounds are for all, we parents just need to be patient and encouraging, and in doing so we will pass these traits to our children and make them much better adults.

Karin E. Swenson holds a B.A. in American studies from Mount Vernon College, Washington D.C. (now a part of George Washington University). Before becoming a stay-at-home mom, she served as the Executive Director of The Harvard Club of Washington at the National Press Club.