Parents of young children all know that awful feeling when you take your little ones to the playground only to see a group of adolescents hanging out on the climbing structure. Dread. Anger. Fear. Your child could get hurt! Inappropriate language and behavior will tarnish your her innocence! This is a playground for children, not teenagers! However, let us look at the bigger picture here. What options to teenagers have? Would we rather see teens buried in their devices not socializing? Should they hang out in basements or bedrooms instead of out in nature? Here is why teenagers need playgrounds:
- Nature is good for everyone at every age. Teenagers need to feel connected to the natural world just as we want our young children to feel a connection to nature. When one feels connected to nature, he will take better care of it.
- Get away from the screens and experience the natural world. Studies show that teens spend over 40 hours a week in front of screens. We talk about the lack of social skills, awareness of reality, and mental health issues developing among our teens, but we don’t actively provide solutions. This generation does not have ‘hang outs’ they way previous generations did. The answer could lie in the local park, simply.
- Stay young and embrace your inner child. As adults, we still enjoy body surfing at the ocean with our kids, jumping on the trampoline, building sand castles, sledding, or climbing trees. Teenagers are at an awkward time where those activities seem juvenile, yet, like adults, they secretly yearn to hang onto the fun of those physical exertions. Don’t ask teens to grow up sooner than they should. Allow them to hang onto childhood and embrace that innocence.
- Physical activity relieves stress. Exercise not only relieves stress, it reduces risk for obesity/diabetes, increases mental and cardiovascular health, reduces truancy among teens, increases focus and attention, reduces aggressive behaviors, and builds confidence. Teens experience stresses in academic expectations, social interactions, and family relationships. Being physically active will help them to relieve these stresses in a healthy way while gaining all the other benefits of exercise.
- Teens desperately need space to hang out! Adolescents are often discouraged from hanging out at businesses like stores and coffee shops because they aren’t spending money in the businesses and their presence alone discourages other paying customers from entering. Loitering on the streets is also frowned upon. Where are teens to go? Should they hang out in the basement of a friend’s home where both parents are working or engage in more reckless behaviors indoors? Teenagers need independence and should not be chaperoned at all times. Providing a public space that welcomes teenagers allows that independence while still being under the umbrella of onlookers, public involvement and safety.
What’s next? When arriving at the park to find the swings taken up by teens or the climbing platform blocked by a group hanging out should parents of preschoolers hand over the playground and just accept the presence of teens? Here are some ways to encourage positive encounters and build relationships that will enhance the community as a whole as well as your experience at the park.
- Smile. When you encounter teens at the park, push that fear and disappointment aside and take a minute to smile and pleasantly greet the teens. Teens are people just like you. They will respond to body language and pleasantries as does everyone else. Simply smiling and exchanging a happy hello will subtly build a positive interaction and mutual respect. In turn, the teens will be more likely to respect your space and your child’s play without even being asked.
- Talk. It’s OK to ask a teen or group of teens to make way for you and your child. When another parent is blocking the climbing structure with their children, you politely say, “Pardon me, may we pass through?” Why not use the same tone and kindness with the teens? Again, building mutual respect is key to positive relationships.
- Get Involved. Although you may not have teens yet, you eventually will! Talk to your community planners about enhancing the playground to accommodate teen needs. Encourage placement of tables, basketball courts, table tennis, exercise equipment, skate parks, etc. Be proactive about your child’s experience now and for the future.
Resources for Teen Playground Development:
Teen Playgrounds: Improving Youth Health, Learning, Behavior and Socialization
Meeting the Needs of Older Children and Adolescents in Parks and Playgrounds
Teenagers Need Active Play, Too!