To the uninitiated, playgrounds are a place of fun and laughter. Children running about, throwing themselves up, down and every which way they can on slides and swings, with smiling parents encouraging their little darlings in the freedom of a confined outside space. But listen a little closer and you'll soon discover that amongst those screams of delight are the howls of angry, upset and frustrated children - and also their parents.
From stubborn toddlers refusing to share the swing to other parents giving out to your own child, the playground presents many situations that can be tricky to navigate. A child hits your child - should you encourage your own child to stand her ground and hit back? A parent is scolding your child for something you didn't see - do you approach all guns blazing?
Two of Ireland's top parenting coaches, Aoife Lee of Parent Support (parentsupport.ie) and Trevor Higgins of Clouds Away (cloudsaway.ie) offer up some professional solutions which can be applied to the most common scenarios that arise day to day, helping parents guide their toddlers and young children through the playground minefield.
You've just put your child on the swing. Now suddenly there's a queue of five waiting to have a go. How long should you let your child on the swing?
"A couple of minutes is always a good call," says Aoife Lee. "When you see a queue of eager toddlers patiently waiting with parents in tow, it adds a little pressure. However, allow your child their bit of time and gently encourage what to go on next. It's no harm to give your child a minute's notice for when it's time to get off. This not only prepares them when getting off but also helps them be aware of others."
Trevor Higgins agrees: "I would point out the waiting children to my child and say something like, 'I think those boys and girls are waiting to have a turn on the swing too.' Then I would propose something like, 'How about we swing for a couple more minutes and then we have a race to the slide?'"
A child hits your child. Do you allow hitting back in self-defence?
"No, I would not encourage my child to hit back," says Trevor. "I would make sure he or she was not hurt and then say something like, 'Are you okay? That child is not being gentle with you. Do you think we should find another boy or girl to play with?' Then I would take it from there."
"Never encourage retaliation," says Aoife. "This may be a heated discussion among parents; however, I would always recommend that you gently intervene between the children. Be clear to the child hitting out that we must be gentle, while comforting your own child. Be mindful too that when some children are provoked, that's when hitting occurs. It does make it easier when the parent of the child who hits is around to see it, so they can respond responsibly. Trust your gut as a parent - comfort, distract and move on."
A child is not sharing the slide. Their parent isn't paying attention. Should you approach the child or the parent?
"Choose your battles," says Aoife. "A small toddler between the ages of two and three believes the world revolves around them: they don't know how to share. So for this age group, they are not socially able to negotiate; they need their parent to help. If their parent or carer is not there, we can gently suggest to take turns. However, if it's a no-go, move on and return after a little while - children generally rotate around the playground very quickly, so the chances are they have found something new. If the child is older, a polite 'Can we have a go now?' works. More often than not, children will respond positively."
A parent is giving out to your child for something you didn't see happen. How should you handle this in front of the kids?
"This is always a tricky one," admits Aoife. "Most people dislike any kind of confrontation but for many parents or carers, their natural protective instincts kick in. If your child is being pulled up by another adult, don't fear approaching to see what's going on. Keep calm, find out what has happened and judge the situation as to whether you need to address your child's behaviour with your child or talk it out with the other parent. If the other parent is very agitated, avoid reflecting emotions: we don't gain anything by venting. Keeping calm can often diffuse an already difficult situation."
Trevor says, "I would immediately approach the parent and politely say something like, 'Hello, I'm his/her father. Is everything okay?' I would then give the other parent the opportunity to explain the situation. Then say something like, 'I see. Thank you for letting me know. I'll speak to my son/daughter about that right now.' Then, depending on what occurred, I would deal with it as I saw fit."
Someone is taking photos of your cute child without your permission. How should you approach them?
"I would immediately approach the stranger and introduce myself as the child's father," says Trevor, "and politely say something like, 'I don't normally like strangers taking pictures of my child. I'm sure you understand.' I would then invite my child to play with me."
"We would like to think that the majority of adults would ask permission if they want to take a picture of your child, whether it's due to cuteness or the colour of their hair!" says Aoife. "Keep it calm and to the point. While taking your child by the hand, say, 'I would prefer if you didn't take a picture of my child, please,' and ask that they delete whatever pictures they have already taken. This is 100pc not acceptable. Be strong and assertive, but polite at the same time."
ODD ONE OUT
There are a number of children playing together. Your child wants to play with them but is shunned on approaching the other kids. Do you step in and ask the children if your child can play too? Or maybe encourage your child to play on something else?
"I think, in this situation, I would follow my child's lead, as there might be an opportunity for learning here," says Trevor. "Are their feelings hurt? What is their preference? Would they like to try again? Would they like my support in solving this problem? I would determine the answers to these questions and then act accordingly."
"Exclusion is often determined by the children's ages," says Aoife. "It's never nice to see your child excluded. Try not to take it personally - it does happen a lot. Some children need encouragement to know how to join in, and likewise what to do when shunned. If your gentle persuasion doesn't work, support your child in moving on. Acknowledge how they might be feeling, distract and encourage your child to hop onto the next fun thing."
A toddler is hovering while your child is snacking on bread sticks or rice cakes. Should you offer them some?
"Kids love snacks!" says Aoife. "If you sense that a child is eager for a bite, and the parent is clearly nearby, there's never any harm in asking the child's parent if you can offer them something. Always ask, though. We don't know what every family's eating arrangements are and even what the child might be allergic to."
"The child might be curious, bored or want to play with my child," says Trevor. "I think I would say hello to the other child and encourage my child to introduce him/herself and then take it from there. I wouldn't give the other child food without the permission of the parent."
Your child is bawling because their own bucket that they brought to the playground is now being used by another child. Do you tell your child to go get it? Do you get it yourself? Or perhaps let the other child play with it while your own child cries?
"Ah, sandpit antics!" says Aoife. "Most children tend to gravitate towards the sand regardless of what time of year it is. When your child wants to bring their own bucket and they are happy to share - great! But if they are clearly very unhappy with the injustice of another child taking their bucket or spade, give it a minute or so and encourage them to ask for it back. If this feels too daunting for them, intervene gently by suggesting they play with it for another minute. Offer an alternative if there are other toys to share, then take it back. There is no right or wrong way to approach a predicament like this. Judge it by the child involved and how content or unhappy your child is. Remember, praise your own child for sharing if this happens."
"I would console my child and encourage him or her to share the bucket with the other child," says Trevor. "Would they be willing to play together, using the bucket in turns? They might need my support to referee the use of the bucket. My emphasis would be on encouraging kindness and problem-solving."