I typically write about the early childhood realm. That’s where my professional expertise is. But as my own kids grow, I’m beginning to make some interesting observations about the span of childhood.
While my youngest two boys are still in the early childhood years, my oldest two are solidly in the school age years. (My oldest, in fact, seems intent on flirting with becoming a “tween”, which is puzzling to me, since I recall birthing him just yesterday.)
I’m starting to notice some of the perspectives and attitudes about “big kids” from a new vantage point. Just yesterday, my husband and I were talking about observations we’ve made as we’ve watched interactions in public playspaces. Not always, but sometimes, there seems to be almost an air of irritation when the big kids show up.
I remember, what seems like just a few years ago, being a mom of preschoolers and babies and sometimes having the same reaction at the playground. “Ugh. The big kids are here. Well, it was fun while it lasted.”
But as I learn more about the inherent value of play and the developmental processes as kids grow, the more embarrassed I am by my earlier thoughts.
Something occurred to me as my husband and I exchanged stories about the reactions people had had, not just to our boys, but to the “big kids” in general. Where do they — where did I — expect these “big kids” to play?
As a child, I was free to roam for hours with my siblings over acres of farmland. But kids today rarely have that luxury. Aside from the rarity of having access to that amount of space, today’s culture is less and less friendly to the idea of kids on their own. For many children, play areas are one of the few places where they’re allowed to exercise some independence and some big movements.
Where else would they be?
Are big kids supposed to relegate their time to organized sports? Or closet themselves in clusters around video games? Or maybe they need to sit down and do more worksheets?
Are our expectations for “big kids” on the playground another example of “pushing kids down the stairs“? Expecting them to do or be or act like something beyond their age.
Sometimes, even the most ardent advocates for childhood need to remember that big kids are still, in fact, kids. And kids need to play. All kids. (All humans, for that matter!)
Developmentally, these older kids are going to play differently than our little preschool dears. And sometimes that’s what makes us uncomfortable. But it’s also what makes the play developmentally appropriate for them.
Developmentally, these older kids are more socially driven and drawn to more organized play. So they gather together and organize rule-based play. From the outside, we may see an intimidating gang of big kids, but we’re actually watching the developmental progression of play in action.
These older kids may be more likely to use loose parts in different ways. Turning things over, building new strongholds, building, inventing, and challenging the status quo.
We wouldn’t expect these older kids to talk the way our preschoolers do, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find they don’t play the same way either.
Sometimes these differences make us uncomfortable. Myself included. Sometimes we’re tempted to say disapprovingly, “That’s not the way we do this at this playground.” But may we remember that they are playing. And play requires some degree of freedom and flexibility.
Sometimes, unfortunately, we’re tempted to shout at these big kids, correcting them in ways and tones that leave them cowering. But may we remember that even with their taller stature, louder voices, and larger vocabularies, they still carry tender hearts and growing capacities for self-control and social grace.
I’m not saying there shouldn’t be rules. And first and foremost is the “Renegade Golden Rule” shared by Heather Shumaker in her book, It’s OK Not to Share and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids (*affiliate — check out our read along series here). “It’s OK as long as it doesn’t hurt people or property.” (And yes, “hurting” people includes hurting their feelings or making them feel unsafe.)
But as we help all children to follow these rules, we could also do our part to follow them ourselves. To gently remind rather than shout. To invite older kids to help out or problem solve rather than wish them away. To see them as children rather than a nuisance.
Childhood is meant for play. Childhood comes in many sizes, and there should be room for all.
Wow I love this post, Amanda. Great insights and food for thought. x
I was just at the playground today with my 23 month old. They had a toddler section but she has always been an adventurous and wanted to go on the more challenging structure ( designed for 3-11. I’m not the type to hold her back or tell her to “be careful”, but i do stand by and spot her as she climbs. Anyway the playscape was crawling with big kids but i think it gave my daughter an opportunity to learn how to assert herself. At one point she fell off a ladder, briefly cried, then watched a 5 year old boy climb it. She immediately stopped crying and said “yeah! again!” and tried again (successfully), still all covered in leaves and dirt from her fall. Later, that same boy gently helped her cross a bridge, all on his own. I guess my point is, it can be a learning opportunity for all ages.
I love this post, and have one other angle for you to think about. You said that as a child you would roam with your siblings, and unless you were triplets etc that meant mixed age kids playing together. In the little village I live in there are only about 10 kids, aged 3 to 12, and they all play together. They ALL learn so much from each other.
Thank you so much for this post! I appreciate it as a mother who has had the same thoughts at the playground on both sides of the fence.
It was just a few years ago that I remember thinking that bigger kids were unsafe at playground areas and wished they would go somewhere else. Now, I find myself with two “big kids” and one preschooler who all regularly enjoy the park spaces that a lot of parents believe to be just for littles. Unfortunately, my oldest looks several years older than he actually is (8 going on 11) and gets lots of “looks” when we play. This fact compounded with our homeschooling status means that my oldest two, tend to get the “why aren’t the AT SCHOOL???” comments as well.
Thank you for the excellent reminder that children of all ages NEED play and benefit from as much time as we can possibly give them. It’s one of the biggest reasons we homeschool, in fact.
Here’s the thing I noticed, (both when I was a Mom of a toddler and now as a Mom of a super tall 8 year old), if kids play with no regard for younger ones it makes me nervous. When we arrive now or when a young one arrives when we are playing, I outloud remind my children of the young one(s) and that they need to pay attention to the young one(s) and keep and eye out for them. When someone did that for me when mine were tiny, I immediately calmed down because I knew that big kid was going to treat my child as a person, not furniture to get over. Sometimes that even allows older and younger ones to play together, sometimes that just allows them to experience a younger or older child.
This is my concern – my son is (a very tiny) 3 year old, and when the 8-12 year olds show up they actually run him over. At our local playground they’re mostly unsupervised (which I’m fine with, since I want to send my 8 year old to the park alone), but it puts me in an awkward position – do I step in to their play to remind them that there are littles around and be careful?
Even my son wants to just go home if he sees there are big kids at the playground. I’m not sure if he picked that up from my attitude or his own.
I’ve never really noticed! but isn’t this sad? the “big kids” would obviously notice and would be discouraged to go there again, and be back to playing video games at home or loiter around in a mall.
But why do parents of little kids think so? my 3 y.o. is kinna drawn to ‘big kids’ and many big kids ive encountered play well with him too and kind of assume the role of big brother or caretakers. I think the big reason is the little ones are still not old enough to play “with each other” while the older ones actively do so.
So big kids are definitely welcome to play with us !
See maybe I am different, but it’s not the ‘big kids’ that bother me…it the (lack) of parents. I have a toddler and a tween and I watch them both like Hawks when we are in public and correct their behavior when needed. It’s the parents of older kids on the sidelines playing on their phones/talking and not paying attention that the aggravation comes from. Just because your kids are older doesn’t mean they dont need to be watched. Those kids are usually the ones running over little kids and pushing them out of the way. Why not, no ones paying attention….
YES! This is my problem exactly. I so appreciate when parents of kids of ANY age realize that their child is HUMAN and thus needs supervision. It is typically the UNsupervised children (of any age) who are causing problems – running kids over, pushing, and just generally bullying. When older, unsupervised children feel they are in control of the situation, they feel they have a power that they are not really yet equipped to have. Moms and Dads (and other caregivers) are the ADULT for a reason. Be the adult. Don’t make your CHILD have to be responsible for always making the correct choice every single time. Because they won’t. That’s what adults are there for – to guide and offer instruction.
It’s possible that the “big” kids push and jostle not because they are unsupervised, but because schools have cut programs like PE and recess and keep these children sitting at desks most of the day. They need to move and run. I don’t think it’s a terrible thing to remind them to be a bit more gentle around child, but they are at an age where they need independence in a safe environment. It is this independence and lack of structure that enables them to become creative thinkers and problem solvers.
Where we used to live? We had the same problem with the big kids (teens and maybe tweens) showing up at the park because they’d push past the little kids and even knock them over because they were not even aware of anything but their own play. Once we left with our little kids and the kids on the playground cheered and jeered us as we left because they won the playground. Our new town? Awesome. Children are kind and polite and look out and even interact kindly with the little kids once in a while. I think a lot of this is the luck of the town draw because both towns are very similar from the outside looking in, but living inside is a whole different experience.
My son of 15 is just 2 cm shy of 2 meters tall. He wears size 16 shoes and started shaving once a week,
from last year. Over weekends he would plough the field and take care of the cattle on grandpa’s farm. He volunteers at the state veterinary over school holidays. And doing the dishes, cutting grass is his responsibility. Although he is a teenager and prefers his space, there are still days when he would come and look for attention. Or come and look for a back scratch or tickle. Please do not let size disorientate you!
Allow children to be children as long as they need. Teach them skills they need for the future, but in doing so, don’t disregard their development stages.
Interesting post. I’m a mother of MS and HS children. On our school holiday in New Zealand and Australia, I was surprised to see my older child still eager to check out the new playgrounds that my younger child pointed out – playgrounds designed for older children. This made me start to think about whether there has been any research about whether playgrounds are still a developmental need for children over age 11. Sure, they get organized sports, but swinging on the monkey bars still seems like a lot of fun for them. Have you come across any studies about this?