Playground Rules

By Alexa Joy Sherman

if you’ve ever taken your toddler to a public playground, you’ve likely been faced with at least one disconcerting dilemma or etiquette issue. After all, when you put dozens of pint-size strangers in contact with each other and then mix in a boatload of sand, a bunch of cool equipment and perhaps an oblivious parent or two, it’s no wonder these allegedly restful retreats often feel more like war zones than fun zones.

Not only do different ages, personalities, standards and parenting styles come into play, but the excitement of being in a new and stimulating environment can cause simple manners to fl y straight out the window, notes etiquette and protocol consultant Melissa Leonard ( But there’s no need to run screaming for the safety of your own home, never to set foot in the sandbox again. Here, experts weigh in with their top strategies for cutting through chaotic and confounding conundrums so you and your child can navigate the playground and escape not only unscathed, but also more socially adept.

Playground problem: My 15-month-old son always seems to commandeer other kids’ toys, and sometimes I can’t even fi nd the rightful owner to ask if it’s okay.

Solution: Kids under the age of 18 months are just starting to understand the concepts of not grabbing and of sharing with others, Leonard says. “With young children such as this, constant reminders and consistency are the keys,” she notes. Of course, most caregivers are happy to share their child’s toys and won’t bat an eye over your son taking something of theirs for the moment, but this is an opportunity to teach your son about boundaries and respect.

Even as your child gets older, you can say things like “This toy doesn’t belong to us” or “We need to ask permission before using other people’s things.” Then, rather than letting him keep the equipment, try a distraction: Encourage him to play with his own toys, suggest some time on the swings or fi nd another activity you think will appeal to him just as much. If you do fi nd the owner of the toy, ask if he or she would be willing to share. When your child is 2 or older, you might even encourage him to ask permission himself, as well as offer to share his own toys. “Watch him closely and see how he interacts, and be ready to intervene if things get out of hand,” Leonard says. “Keep verbally reinforcing the ‘we share’ rule. Kids often just need some gentle reminding and practice.”