Susan G. Solomon talks about Play and Parenting

In her article, Play and Parenting, Susan G. Solomon explores the sometimes divided methods of contemporary parenting plus delves into the history of child-directed, loose-parts play.

The following is part of “Play Work Build: Essays on Constructive Toys”, edited by Rockwell Group in partnership with The National Building Museum and available in print at the museum gift shop in Washington, DC

The editors of European Early Childhood Education Research Journal recently asked if adults perceive children as vulnerable or competent.i   Do our actions communicate to children that they need constant protection or that they can make age- appropriate decisions over how they live their daily lives? This is a critical question; it is a query that underlies contemporary parenting and, as a consequence, finds its way into public policy of health and recreation.

All around us, we see examples of how these two visions compete. Raising children today is complicated. We want to be responsible yet liberating. We have to straddle a thin line while we confront incidents as mundane as allowing youngsters to cross a street or as life-altering as sending a child off to college. Overwhelmed by the pressure to prepare our children to succeed from an early age, and by media coverage that surrounds us with grim stories about accidents and abductions, we frequently see no choice but to be vigilant.

We walk or drive eight and nine-year-olds to school instead of letting them practice crossing a street carefully on their own.

Matador No. 1, Korbuly, 1932
National Building Museum, Architectural Toy Collection

We direct our children’s activities on the playground instead of leaving them to their own devices (“Let’s play hide and seek” or “Climb up the ladder…now slide down!”).  We manage our children’s daily lives, enriching them with activities we see as worthwhile or stepping in to assist in their every endeavor. When nothing is planned, we sign them up for organized activities and schedule play dates. Will they miss a developmental opportunity if we don’t expose them at the right time? Are we worried that they won’t get the most out of their free time? We have all heard stories of the proverbial “helicopter parents,” who don’t know how to hold back when their kids enter college or apply for their first full time job. Why does this happen? Aren’t these young adults capable of choosing the right courses or knowing how to convince an employer of their value? Are we afraid they won’t bounce back if they make mistakes or fail?

Much has been written about how—and even why—we have felt compelled to insert ourselves into our children’s activities. Parents have been particularly susceptible to micromanaging their kids during times of economic and social upheaval.ii  This is true today when we have so many uncertainties but still have one power: the ability to impose order on the habits of our own children. It is difficult to relinquish our authority and to view our youngsters as individuals who can mature on their own; learn critical life skills from their own experience; and become responsible citizens through their own actions.

Kids internalize their perceived vulnerability. When adults shelter them from every risk or difficulty, they don’t learn how to stay alert to potential dangers or how to react when something is off; they are unsure of how to make wise decisions. Take today’s highly standardized playgrounds for instance. These post-and-platform structures attempt to design every risk and fall out of play. Danish landscape architect Helle Nebelong writes and lectures about how the regularity of most playground equipment lulls children into thinking that every rung or step will be a uniform distance or height. Kids acquire important coping skills to tackle irregular situations by navigating open- ended experiences. This isn’t limited to issues of physical safety. Through encountering unstructured and unpredictable situations, children learn to think for themselves, to address problems on their own, and to adapt to the unfamiliar.

Nebelong believes that mid-twentieth-century Danish examples of play environments, which permitted children to work with surplus materials and objects (“loose parts”) and to use real tools, helped forge her own passion for playgrounds in which there are no set ways to do anything.iii  These older outdoor spaces were called Adventure Playgrounds. Children would decide what they wanted to build and how to build it, using hammers and nails to construct their own structures and spaces. These playgrounds, which had excellent safety records, gave children the opportunity to direct themselves and take control of their surroundings.

Log Camp Building Set No. 2, Roy Toy, c. 1935
National Building Museum, Architectural Toy Collection

Constructive play opportunities like those found in Adventure Playgrounds supply children with tools to fulfill their ideas and encourage them to be independent. They require children to self-motivate and set their own agenda. Prior to the advent of Adventure Playgrounds, early 20th-century construction toy systems gave children an outlet for imaginative play. Children would typically play with these sets (Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and Erector Sets) for many hours, and they were considered both fun and educational. Today, children still love to play unsupervised with these kinds of toys and their contemporary spin-offs for long stretches of time. This kind of play gives them the freedom to act according to their own invented rules. It shows them that they not only are competent but also can accomplish their own goals in their own time.

How can we expand on the meaning of construction toys and find other ways to support young people’s growth? It is time for us to consider a new point of view in order to help our children. Perhaps there is a way we can harness our fears and put them into perspective, or channel our enthusiasm in a way that enables our children to benefit. Each time we move to protect or direct them, we might ask if there were another way. We can look for a path in which we can stand back and let the kids take charge of their own world, so we can demonstrate our faith in their abilities. When we initiate this way of thinking, we empower kids. We also permit ourselves to find joy in the competencies of our offspring.


Susan G. Solomon is the author of American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space (University Press of New England, 2005). She is currently writing a follow-up book, The Science of Play: How Playgrounds Might Aid Child Development, which will appear in 2014. Solomon received a Ph.D. in architectural history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1997. She lectures and writes widely and heads her own consulting firm, Curatorial Resources & Research in Princeton, NJ.

i Tim Waller, Ellen Beate H. Sandseter, Shirley Wyver, Eva Arlemalm- Hagser, Trisha Maynard, “The Dynamics of Early Childhood Spaces: Opportunities for Outdoor Play?” (2010, editorial), European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 18:4, 437-443.

ii Judith Warner, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety
(New York: Riverhead Books, 2005)

iii Helle Nebelong, interview with author, December 12, 2011, Copenhagen, Denmark.

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