Once my school-age children are out the door, backpacks, snacks and after-school essentials in tow, my 21-month toddler Samuel and I begin our morning stand-off. While I move systematically through the house, clearing breakfast dishes, straightening bed covers and sweeping up crusty bits of tortilla from the previous night’s fajita dinner, Samuel stands plaintively at the full-length window looking outside. He points to his outdoor playhouse and says, “House, out.” When I don’t respond, he takes my hand and pulls, saying, “Come.” He pats my hand reassuringly and leads me in the direction of the front door where his shoes and jacket are waiting. Usually I manage to stave him off, at least until I can get the kitchen straight and a load of laundry going. Sometimes he becomes distracted by his train tracks or energetically “helps” with the housework, but my reprieve is always temporary. Eventually, he wins. Out we go.
Once outside, Samuel is usually content to walk up and down our deserted street. He throws pebbles into the ever-present street puddle, a result of a lopsided road paving job, and wanders to each neighbor’s front gate, presumably looking for the children who are away at school. He rides broken-down toys that someone has left in the vacant lot and digs holes in his sandbox. He is generally satisfied to play alone, but I know the time is coming when he’ll want friends to interact with. That’s when we’ll hit the playground.
I’m familiar with the Czech playground culture from raising Anna Lee in Žižkov near the popular Parukařka and Riegrovy sady playgrounds. With a yard of our own, I had figured our playground visits might end. Not so. Even after we splurged for a playhouse with a slide and two swings, Anna Lee and Oliver often begged to go to a Prague playground. On warm afternoons after preschool, we joined the ranks of parents, grandparents and nannies that frequented the Riegrovy sady playground. While my childless friends met in the beer-garden, I sat on a bench with the parents, watching as our children tested their physical strength and improved their socialization skills. Of course, it didn’t look like that. It looked just like a passel of children of various sizes, abilities and nationalities having a good time playing in the park.
I’m always pleasantly surprised by the importance Czech society places on outdoor play for children. Regular visits to the neighborhood playground are a ritualistic part of most Czech young children’s daily routines. Going “out” once in the morning and once in the afternoon means children get fresh air, increase their appetite for their next mealtime and socialize with others. As an added benefit, parents get to socialize, too. Some of my best experiences in learning to speak Czech happened on the playground — I’d strike up a conversation with the parent of the child mine had just snatched a shovel from, or I’d be approached by a father whose child had just made a lap around the playground with Anna’s motorcycle and was coming to return it and say thanks. Although I sometimes felt more like an outsider at the playground when all the parents around me seemed to be Czech, invariably, the closer I looked and listened, the more I’d notice different languages, Russian, German, Spanish or French. As many parents were eager to practice their English with me as I was to improve my Czech. The playground gives kids and parents a time-out from regular life and offers some healthy benefits for both.
Playtime doesn’t stop when the school years begin, however. During Czech preschool, rain or shine, the children take a morning walk or visit the school’s outdoor garden to play organized games or have free time on the play equipment. Later on, in elementary school, physical fitness classes are a mandatory part of the school’s curriculum and for students who stay at the school after lunch, the after-school program typically includes at least one hour of outdoor play time. While I’ve occasionally heard parents complain that the teachers put the children outside just so they can stand by the fence and gossip, most Czechs seem to believe it’s a necessary part of the after-school day. I’ve watched Anna’s elementary school on their regular Friday afternoons at Stromovka Park. For forty-five minutes about 50 children ran back and forth in a grassy section of the park, from the swings to the rope tow to some metal sports bars and in between. Three teachers stood together in the center, ready to offer help if needed. When it was time to leave, one teacher raised her arm and the children more or less fell into pairs to walk back to the school. Apart from a skinned knee or two, no one got hurt and no one was left behind.
Recently, my mother sent me a clipping from the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Importance of Child’s Play” by Lenore Skenazy which claims that “in striving to make our kids super safe and super smart, we have turned them into bored blobs.” Skenazy asserts that in the modern quest for more education and more safety, we’ve forgotten the importance learning through strenuous free play. There is even an emerging movement in the US to encourage “free range kids,” meaning kids who run around outside, and yes, occasionally fall down, but generally enjoy physical play. The article reports on a study from 34 different Cincinnati preschool centers that claims children spend only 2-3% of their day engaged in “‘vigorous activities.'” Since many children spend most of their waking hours in daycare facilities, Skenazy says, if they’re not getting time on the playground at school, they’re not likely getting it at home either. Childhood obesity is becoming an increasing worry, with 19% of kindergarten children already classified as obese. She also points out that in the efforts to make playgrounds safer much of the valuable learning aspects (fear = fun factor) have been erased.
Reading the article made me at once grateful that free play and being outdoors are considered important in Czech society and incorporated in the state school system. Playgrounds represent an important environment for children’s social and physical development. I’ll never forget the day Anna learned how to slide down the tall, fireman’s pole by herself, or the day that she, somewhat painfully, realized that the slanted climbing board in the nearby village playground wasn’t as good for bumping down as it was for climbing up. It also made me realize that Samuel’s morning tantrums about going outside should be honored. Laundry and beds can wait, but if I don’t encourage his desire to explore and exercise in the fresh air, we’ll both be sorry.
For the past few almost-spring mornings, I’ve made it a point to get him out of the house as soon after breakfast as I can. As a result, he’s fallen into bed at nap time truly tired and slept longer. He’s up from his nap now and pulling at my arm to go out. What can I do, but follow. Playgrounds and the great outdoors are waiting.