The playground was packed.
A play structure shaped like a pirate ship was teaming with small bodies that careened from the climbing wall to the slide. From there, they climbed back up onto the various nautical themed baubles covering the walls of and jutting out from the ship. Even smaller and more unsteady bodies slowly overcame the infant toddler play area about 15 feet away. Some of tiny humans stumbled around, testing their newfound walking skills on the rubber padded are, while others climbed onto and around the textured structures covered with platforms, handholds, and more.
When we arrived, my three-year-old son and 14-month-old daughter were ready to be cut loose on the place. I set them free and wandered over to the nearby bench, in search of my place amongst the parents sitting and standing nearby.
The local playground is usually a hotbed of activity for families. These parks not only provide a release and fresh air for kids, they also reflect the demographics of the surrounding community. Think about it. The families living nearby use the park as a cheap, close source of activity. They buy homes nearby so that the kids can get out, socialize, and make lifelong friends, while also creating memories in real life. Almost every kid living in the area is usually at the park at some point. Playgrounds definitely attract and anchor a community.
On the playground that day, my daughter was busy making an unsteady chase after an even newer walker than herself. They were climbing, circling, touching and sliding in a slow-run game of either chase or follow-the-leader. My son had joined a game of tag that included most of the kids on the structure. One kid counted, while the others climbed to the highest point possible in an effort to get a head start on the escape as the tagger climbed up after them. That’s the best I could understand it. They were having a good time, so I didn’t stop to inquire about rules. The parents were conversing. I was talking with my daughter’s playmate’ mom. All the kids seemed to be having fun.
It didn’t take long to notice that a few kids were not playing. They stayed off to themselves, shying away from the tag game, or ignoring the invitations to the sandbox, or other activities. These kids seemed to want to play by themselves. Their parents also sat away from our group. Invitations to join us in our little crowd or to make small talk quickly panned out. The entire family was uncomfortable, and they were losing the battle to hide it.
These people were failing the playground test. It is an unspoken social test of our tolerance of others in close, public situations. Every time you bring your kids to a new park for the first time, you play that game. The test is, can you remain calm and fellowship with other people who do not speak, look, or act like you or the people you are used to. Short of any developmental or cognitive disorders that would prevent a child from socializing, if the very thought of sitting in the sandbox with a child of another color freaks you or your kid out, you fail the test. If you and the kids slip right into the games and conversations, you all pass with flying colors.
The uncomfortable scene that day on the playground immediately flashed me back to when my older kids were toddlers. It was about 15 years before, when my biracial family lived in rural Arkansas, the community was predominantly white. At the time, my husband and I had only three of our six kids. Girls, ages two, four, and six. In fact, my black skin and my kids’ darker tones were the only diversity for miles around. The playground reflected this every time my kids and I went to the park for some fresh air and playtime. They always found plenty to do in playing amongst a group of white kids of scattered ages. They never noticed what I did, that they were like little chocolate chips on the playground cookie. They stuck out, but we had become accustomed to doing so. They were not afraid to walk up to a kid of another color and strike up a game. Well my oldest would. The younger two were terribly shy at first, but usually joined in.
We we moved to a more diverse community in Northern Indiana two years later. We found a home with a playground up the street about seven years ago. The language mix of Spanish, Arabic, and English was the melody that children — in shades of brown, white and every hue in between — played under. I was in love. My kids finally had a diverse foundation on which to practice and grow their socialization skills.
I didn’t anticipate that the language, and overall cultural variance in the playground would be unsettling to my kids. They could socialize in situations where no other kids, except a sibling, shared the same skin tone. At our first trip to the playground, I took the now four kids — we had a toddler son by this time — and set them loose to socialize.
My now 20, 18 and 16-year old were rambunctious girls who, after years of living in a rural area that lacked diversity, were overwhelmed by the many shades and languages in our new neighborhood playground. They shied away from other kids who invited them to play. They stayed alone and didn’t seem to be having a great time. When we got home, I found out why. My kids were overwhelmed by the “brown kids who talked funny”.
I failed the playground test. My kids didn’t know how to interact with the Spanish and Arabic-speaking children in the park who tried to play with them. The Spanish/Arabic and English hybrid speak that the kids and parents used freaked my kids out even more. This is the last thing I wanted to hear as a parent of biracial kids, as a black mom, and as liberal. Every one of my identities was offended by this. But, it was information I needed to know. I went back to that park almost every day that summer. Soon, my kids were playing happily with everyone there.
Parents, when you live and interact in an area that lacks diversity, your children only get used interacting with one type of person. But, in the diverse nation we live in, our kids must learn to interact with other people — especially those who do not look like them. If your playground is “one note”, then you and your kids fail the playground test before it even begins. Why, because your playground reflects your community. The community you chose to live in. Let that sink in.
Now, I understand that you probably can’t just pick up the family and move the moment you figure out that your community a cookie with no dark chips in it. And, just stalking a new playground in an unknown neighborhood may seem a bit daunting. You do have options. Look to children’s museums, large gatherings, school functions, and cultural events to give your kids a chance to just be amongst a diverse group. For example, we live near Chicago where there are several world music festivals each summer. People of all ages and from several cultures are there mingling, eating and dancing. These are often free events that are ripe for “diversity practice” with your kids. Don’t be afraid to start a conversation with people of color or someone seemingly from another country. Your never know where those interactions will go.
Who knows? Failing the playground test may lead to a playdate that opens your eyes while expanding your child’s horizons.
A recent essay by Andrew Grant-Thomas entitled “Your 5-year-old is already racially biased. Here’s what you can do about it.” Is full of suggestions and tips on how to help you child with their bias. Take his suggestions and start putting them to use before you next trip to the playground.