Before my kids were born, I had visions of sunny days spent playing outside with them, catching them as they slid down slides, pushing them gently in the baby swings, and watching proudly as they took turns on the playground equipment. That turned out to be pure fantasy. The reality is that the weather rarely cooperates, the slides are always wet, and there is a frustratingly long wait for an available swing. I also didn’t imagine outside play to be so disgusting. Gross things happen at the park and if it wasn’t for the need for kids to have fresh air, I would rather keep all activities indoors when they are little.
There is not a lot of green space in our Queens neighborhood, but there are several playgrounds within walking distance. Our kids are regulars there, and I swear I am counting the days (or rather, years) until they are old enough to play there unaccompanied. While the city does what it can to keep the parks clean, grossness still lurks in every crevice of every single piece of play equipment.
I used to rub antibacterial hand gel into my kids as often as possible when they played there as toddlers. It’s so hard to keep children from putting their hands, and whatever they’ve picked up with their hands, in their mouths. I gave up by the time my second child was walking. He loved exploring the nastiest areas of the playground — by the fence where trash gathered, under the footbridge where rotting leaves were piled. I’ve found the level of joy a child expresses is proportionate to the amount of filth he’s covered in so, in the end, I guess it's worth it. Disgusting, but worth it.
So brace yourself for these gross things that you’ll probably experience at one point when taking your kid to the park which will, no doubt, include the following:
They Will Eat Dirt
You can try to fight it but kids are programmed to eat the ground until they’re three, I think. Chocolate and soil are the same color, so it’s not totally unreasonable for kids to take the “mud pie” creation far too literally. I only freak out about this because I have found broken bottles and cigarette butts in the playground (sometimes). We were vigilant about watching what our kids put in their mouths, but I’m sure they’ve swallowed their share of dirt.
They Will Drink The Sprinkler Water
Fair point, because the water fountains at our playground rarely work. I try to discourage them from, but it’s like they can’t help themselves; they see that steady stream of cool water on a hot day and they just open wide. As long as the water isn’t brown, I try not to get anxious when this inevitably happens.
Their Mouth Will Come Into Contact With A Piece Of Playground Equipment
It’s a relief when toddlers grow out of the licking stage, but inevitably my kids’ tongues are hanging out of their mouths when they run around so I’m sure they end up getting a mouthful of nastiness as they go down slides. No amount of sanitizing wipes will make the playground a germ-free place, so save yourself the anxiety.
Ice Cream Will Get On You Even If You Don’t Get Ice Cream
The ice cream truck annoyingly parks outside the playground gate in the warm weather. I am not one of those parents who buy their kid treats at the park (isn’t it enough just be with your wonderful mother?), but it doesn’t matter. Ice cream will get on me, because some little kid is eating it, and spills it, and we all step in it and track it everywhere. I have come home with a stroller seat covered in sprinkles from some other kid’s vanilla cone.
Ice cream will also make your kid act gross, pitching a fit because apparently I’m the only mom in the whole park refusing to buy my child a treat (I swear there was at least one other ice cream-withholding mom and we silently fist-bumped when I passed her on the bench). So no good can come of ice cream in a playground setting, in my opinion.
They Will Drop Their Snack And Eat It Anyway
The 5-second rule applies in my house, but not out in the streets, and especially not in public play spaces in my native NYC. You have to act fast if you think you can snatch that half-eaten pretzel out of a kid's hands as they dig it out from a pee-soaked leaf pile to shove in their faces.
There Will Be Blood
I’ve been lucky, so far, in that my kids have sustained only minor injuries on the playground. Accidents happen, though, and Band-Aids don’t take up a lot of space in the diaper bag. Come prepared.
They Will Sit In Some Kind Of Gooey Substance On The Swing
Think about it. What body part makes contact with the swing? A kid’s butt. What do young kids have little control over? Their butts. What comes out of a kid’s butt? Yeah, maybe skip the swings unless you’re the first ones to use them after a rainstorm.
There Could Be Vomit
You know that delightful thing older kids do where they twist their friend around in the swing and then let go so their pal whips around and around as the swing chains untangle? It’s all fun and games until it makes them throw up. Another reason to avoid the swings.
You’ll Have To Use The Park Bathroom
Oh how I longed for the diapered days of yore when taking my newly potty-trained kids to the park. I was in a constant state of panic that they would actually need to use the filthy, germ-infested, excrement-coated public restrooms that never seemed to stock toilet paper. I made my kids use the bathroom at home a jillion times before we left the house. I even thought about denying them liquids in the hour leading up to a park playdate, but I’m not a monster.
Some Kid Will Be Led To The Corner To Pee
Sometimes, that kid is your kid. Though there are bathrooms at our neighborhood playground, they are, in a word, disgusting (see above). They are also often closed, forcing you to make a split-second decision: do I let my kid pee her pants and hope I have a change of clothes (because we won’t be able to make it home in time), or do I discreetly lead her to a bush in the corner and shield her while she relieves herself. Yes, I have chosen the latter, and it wasn’t always pee. (I did my best to clean it up, really. Sh*t happens.)
You’ll Have To Change Them Al Fresco
For those at the park who are fortunate to not have to deal with open-air peeing or public bathrooms, they are not completely in the clear. A diapered kid may still drop a load, which means you can either make them stew in it until you get them home, or change them on a park bench. This can be an exciting event for the toddler set, who gather around to witness one of their own getting their privates wiped down very publicly. I have done this. I have hated doing this, but I’d rather be the mom with the naked baby than the one with the stinky baby.
Good Neighbor Tip: Do not throw your dirty diapers into the open trash cans around the park. Those things are rank enough, so nobody needs the additional stench of fermenting human waste permeating the playground. Be kind and bag it, and then throw into a closed waste container.
There May Be Dog Poop...
Dogs are not allowed in playgrounds in New York City, and there are dog runs, but not everyone follows the rules. I have tried to keep my kids away from the planted areas in the playgrounds. That brown thing in my child’s hands may look like a stick, but it probably isn’t.
…Or Pigeon Poop
With all the dropped snacks, the toddler play area is practically a buffet for pigeons in our Queens playground. Pigeons who eat are pigeons who poop. Hats for everyone.
Your Kid Will Accidentally Take Home A Well-Loved Toy That Isn’t Yours
This toy will be the most vile thingamabob you have ever seen and you realize that your child had spent the last hour playing with it on the playground. Yuck.