Forget the fancy, flashy restaurant with video games and dancing animal figures or tunnel slides. Forget movie videos, remote control cars and GameBoys. When you want to enjoy a couple of hours with young children, all you need is a simple picnic and a trip to the park.
Phoenix is blessed with many school playgrounds and small, fun, neighborhood spaces. Pack string cheese and fruit, nuts and yogurt squeeze tubes. Add carrot sticks, and maybe some crackers or chips in snack bags. Go with juice boxes or sippy cups, even if they don’t need them at home any more, so you won’t have to worry about dropping or spilling.
Put a blanket under a tree or on a hill — it’s easier and more companionable for young ones than tables with benches set in the ground. Take extra bread or crackers for feeding ducks if there is a lake.
Once children know a playground and have some experience with the challenges there, they really do not need parents hovering at every piece of equipment. You can sit on the sidelines; just use good sense about whether your children need help or a spotter when they tackle something. Be prepared to move closer if necessary. Be sure you pick a place with a good coating of sand or a soft “fall zone.” Children are safer in tennis shoes or bare feet (if there is a clean sand area) than they are in sandals or flip flops.
When taking young children to the park, remember that, even if you are not right beside them, your eyes need to be on them at all times. Family time is not the same as “socialize with other adults and forget about the kids” time.
Many parks have areas where tricycles or small bikes with training wheels can travel on a paved circle. For little ones, helmets are cool, and it is an easy time to get them in the habit. The super-fast scooters are not appropriate for preschoolers, who have trouble coordinating the one-foot-on, one-foot-off movement. When both feet are on, they get going too fast and have trouble figuring out how to slow down and put one foot out to stop. Better to wait and avoid frustration.
Children who need to move can roll down hills and run up them. They can run in circles and no one cares. They can kick a ball or toss a Frisbee. (Be smart and bring Nerf ones. They don’t go too far and can’t hurt anyone.) They can do cartwheels. They can gallop, skip, twirl and jump.
Children love to be pushed on the swings, but also are very proud when they learn to pump their legs and make it go themselves. It is wise to avoid power struggles about pushing. Children like the feel of mom’s or dad’s attention. Just tell them how long you are willing to do it, and then stop. They can get off or make it go themselves after that. Teach children to pump on a swing by standing in front, not behind. Push them from the flats of their feet. They will learn to reach their feet out to get the push.
To help children climb on playground equipment, place your hands at their waist, which helps them find their center of gravity. Remember that climbing up is learned before climbing down. Teach children how to descend, helping their feet find each lower rail. In a park with soft landing areas, teach them to climb up a ways and then hang and drop if the equipment lends itself to that.
Sliding can be intimidating to small children at first. They may need to have a parent or older sibling go with them. They may need a parent to place them half way up and let go, or stand at the bottom and catch them. Sometimes parents get bored with repetitive use of a slide and urge children to move on to the more challenging equipment or higher slide. Resist that urge. After mastering a slide, the next step is to master it with friends taking turns, and sharing the space, not necessarily moving to the next level. If the park is to be fun for everybody, the child needs to lead the choices.
Take enough digging tools to share: two shovels, two pails, two sifters. Children like to use their dump trucks and tea sets in sand boxes. They enjoy feeding dolls. If water is available, making castles and molds with cups is very entertaining to children and something they can sustain themselves with for a while.
When it’s time to go home, be sure to give a five-minute warning. Then, at one minute, remind children to choose their last activity. Then move forward, take a hand, or count to see how long it will take them to get to the car. Enjoy!