I'm convinced every 80-degree fall day is going to be our last, so I've been shooing the children outside to play in this unseasonably warm weather. Recently, we headed to a park, and I deliberately left my phone in the car. It was early enough on a Saturday morning that there were few children on the playground, and I was tempted by how much fun it would be to play with them, rather than hang out on the sidelines.
This led to a series of serious indignities.
The playground equipment may have shrunk from when I remember last playing on it.
I got stuck in the tunnel of the purple spiral slide, and my ankle knocked around inside the walls of the tunnel as I slid down. Apparently, slides are much more slippery than when we were kids. We used to have to scoot our bottoms along those wretched aluminum sheets, but these new-fangled plastic ones must be pregreased.
Then, I got stuck in the tire tower. There I was, trapped like a Michelin woman, with tires encircling my entire body. I had no idea where to turn to make my way out of the mess.
"Don't worry, Mama! I'm coming to save you!" my 5-year-old called out. A small hand poked out from the bottom of the last tire near my feet. I was starting to feel just a little claustrophobic when I realized that I had to squirm out the bottom of the tower. It was not a graceful exit.
When I saw my second-grader bounce up the rock wall, I followed her lead. I was getting the hang of it. But once I made it to the top, I couldn't figure out how to get down. "It's OK, Mama. Just watch me. Jump. You can do it," she encouraged.
"No, I really can't," I said, looking down and thinking about how my knees still ached from using the treadmill two days earlier.
I looked around, feeling a little panicked. Was I going to have to have someone call the fire department? My children would never let me take them to the park again. I hung for a few minutes and gathered my wits. I sort of shimmied down the pole on the side of the wall to safety.
I decided I should steer clear of anything involving advanced gross motor skills, so I challenged my kindergartner to a swing race.
"Let's see who can go higher," I said. I had this one in the bag. My pumping legs are much longer. But, as soon as I got high enough to see the top of the shortest trees, my head started getting woozy — dizzy enough to make me grab my forehead and skid to an abrupt stop.
The spinning made the mini-lecture in my head seem even louder: Just wait a sec! I am the girl who bungee jumped in college and jumped out of an airplane after graduation. I work out regularly and can hold a tree pose in my yoga class. How did I atrophy my sense of balance? My mother used to get nauseous on the merry-go-rounds, and I would laugh at how old people miss out on all the fun.
Dear Lord. Have I become the old people?
While my children are quick to point out when I am embarrassing them, they seemed to take great delight in my public humiliations on the playground. In fact, all of us kept laughing. There was a moment when I was so filled with joy that I felt a stab of nostalgia. When do we become spectators to our children's play? We are encouraged to get on the floor with our babies and play with them, and many of us do. But at some point, we forget how to really play with our kids.
A recent British study found that one in five parents say they have forgotten how to play with their children, with a third saying that taking part in games and activities with their family is boring, according to the 2010 State of Play report, conducted by psychologist Tanya Byron and commissioned by Disneyland Paris.
More than half the children questioned for the report said they want more quality time with their parents, but (surprisingly) not the video games their parents often play with them.
The study, which interviewed 2,000 parents and 2,000 children, concluded that play is in danger of becoming a "lost art" for British families, with 21 percent of parents admitting they no longer remember how to play and struggle to engage their children in creative and imaginative activities.
Americans may think we've mastered play better than the Brits, but how many of us spend even an hour or half an hour engaged in daily active play with our children? Studies show that American children spend nearly 8 hours a day engaged in some form of media. And one study found that less than 40 percent of parents say they spend at least six hours a week actively playing with their children.
Play is not just passing adults by, but we're also in danger of raising children who don't know how to play. Schools have cut recess to spend more time prepping for standardized tests. Teens send an average of 3,339 texts a month, according to the latest study. Kids are plugged in to devices most waking hours of the day. Structured activities, lessons and practices take up the rest of their time.
That day on the playground I realized my own loss of playtime. I may have looked foolish to some, but I got to experience that playground through my children's eyes.
A slightly balding man in a polo shirt, khaki pants and dress shoes chuckled as I hollered my way down the big slide. A few moments later, I watched as he followed his son up the massive fort and tucked himself into a ball to fit into the opening of that same slide. And, I heard him clank his way down. But when he popped out of the tunnel and dusted himself off, he wore the same goofy smile I couldn't shake all afternoon.
Aisha Sultan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.