This post was written by Liz Faria

Since the pandemic started, passing by padlocked playgrounds (without the laughing preschoolers, the line of strollers, the spilled snack cups, the tired parents sipping their coffee and the one toddler who is always having a meltdown on the slide), has been just another reminder of what we’re missing. But now, signs of life in my area are cautiously coming back. I live in Massachusetts, where coronavirus cases have been relatively low and stable. Other parts of the country are surging, and the picture may look very different from where you sit. Without a comprehensive national strategy to battle the virus, we’re all taking turns as lines on the graph— who is surging, who is stabilizing, who is flattening the curve? It all depends on where you live and when you ask.

We’ve been avoiding public spaces and opting for socially distanced outdoor play in the neighborhood, but in recent weeks, our local playgrounds have opened back up. Now, I am was faced with the daily decision about whether or not to bring my kids. My 3-year-old, in particular, has been desperate to get back to his favorite local spots. As for myself, I can’t say that I’ve missed the chance to push a 3-year-old on a swing for 45 minutes in the blistering heat, but I suppose I’m not really the target audience.

Like most things these days, deciding what to do requires a risk/benefit analysis that I find exhausting.

Regular, everyday decisions have taken on a new weight, as parents try to decide how much risk is too much. And like most other parents, I’m trying to find the balance between protecting my children’s mental health and protecting their physical health. And also knowing that catching the virus, could impact my and my husband’s physical health as well. Before COVID-19, I made a conscious effort to move away from “helicoptering” and leaned more toward “free-range parenting.” Not in an over-the-top way, but in a “I want my kid to be able to ride his bike around the neighborhood without freaking out that he’s going to be abducted” sort of way.

But how does that look in a pandemic?

How do we know if we’re crossing the line into paranoia, or if we’re just playing it safe with an unprecedented public health threat? It’s not a simple equation, and playgrounds, like almost everything else, require extra consideration.

Based on all of the information I’ve been reading about COVID, it’s clear that outdoor activities are safer than indoor activities. I’m a lot less concerned about my kids being in transient contact with other small kids outside, than I am about them being in a sit-down restaurant indoors. Still, going to the park carries some risk. Everything does.

Ultimately, I decided we would go, but only if I could see that the playground wasn’t crowded. We’ve done a few drive-bys of our favorite spots, only to turn away when I saw the slides teeming with kids. But on off times, I’ve found that we can sneak in for an hour or so without encountering more than a few kids. My experience so far has been mostly positive. Most parents are wearing masks, or at least have them available to put on if they come too close to another family. (Again, that’s here in Massachusetts, where the pushback against masks has not been anywhere near as severe as in other parts of the country). As for the kids, it has been a mixed bag in terms of whether or not the masks are on, but that’s what I was expecting going in.

One local playground has a sign posted asking parents to wipe down every surface that their child touches. This playground has huge wooden castles; there are slides and tunnels and bridges and ins and outs. Let me tell you that there is ZERO CHANCE that any parent could effectively “wipe down” the spots their child touched. It would be insanity to think anyone would even try. “Hold on, kids, while I Lysol the 800 surfaces you just touched! I know you have to go potty, but this will only take an hour or so!”

So, yes, if you take your kid to a playground, your kid will touch surfaces that other kids are touching. You’ll need to have hand sanitizer ready on the go and wash hands thoroughly as soon as you’re home. As for social distancing? I understand the CDC guideline of 6 feet exists for good reason, but with very small kids, I think you have to go with the knowledge that some may come closer to each other than that, at least intermittently.

I can see why this fact alone would be enough for some parents to choose to skip the park altogether. Personally, I feel that in my area (with low cases and heavy mask use), the minimal risk of transmission outdoors in the fresh air is a reasonable risk to take.

Still, there are unforeseen circumstances that can make things challenging. The other day, when we were at the playground, a father arrived with his daughter, who had significant special needs. She was a friendly girl, but she had a strong tendency to get extremely close to other kids (within an inch or two of their faces), and she wasn’t wearing a mask.

Given her special needs, it’s quite possible that she wouldn’t have tolerated wearing a mask well, which I appreciate. But she was very close to my kids, and her father was not doing much to intervene. This was clearly not the girl’s fault, and in regular circumstances, a good opportunity to teach your kids how to interact graciously with kids who are different from them. But given the pandemic, the whole thing became stressful. I was concerned about close face-to-face contact with a stranger, and frustrated with the other parent for not seeming to be cognizant of that concern at all.

Ultimately, we decided to cut our playground visit short and I opted not to say anything to the other parent. Navigating all sorts of social norms in 2020 has been one long exercise in awkwardness, tension, and frustration. It can be difficult with friends and certainly, with strangers at a playground. I suppose any time we’re out in public now, we have to be prepared to encounter lots of variables, as well as people who do not share our views on safety and social distancing. That’s true at the stores, and it’s true at the parks.

I’m going to continue to try to navigate things for myself and my kids in a way that balances safety with some limited, but in my view reasonable, levels of risk.

And I’m definitely going to be bringing the hand sanitizer.


Liz Faria is a Mommy Shorts contributor and a licensed independent clinical social worker. She’s been working with children and families for 19 years and chronicles her own tales of motherhood on her blog A Mothership Down.