I'll Be Here
Children have a big job of exploring the world through play. They discover the limits of their abilities best when they are allowed to play uninterrupted. We can help them feel comfortable in this exploration by saying “I’ll be here,” so they know they are supported if they run into trouble.
When my friend and I were about eight years old, we took her six year old sister on a day trip to a local park about two kilometres away.
My mum packed us a lunch, and said, “I’ll be here…at home all day. Come home before dinner.”
We didn’t exactly know where the park was, but we headed off, crossed a major road (looking left and right), and somehow found our way there. The park was filled with laughing and shrieking kids and a few parents. The three of us kids looked out for each other and had an epic day creating an imaginary fairyland in a tree stump. I remember feeling strong and safe because I knew exactly where my mum was, my safe person; at home. I always imagined her in the kitchen at the sink (sorry, mum!)
Flash forward fifty years, and the playground is just across the street. In summer, there can be as many as 20 adults and little ones gathered around the play structure. One parent lifts his toddler up onto the slide while another lifts down a baby who was trying to crawl up the stairs. You hear “good job” and “be careful” being called out between laughter and cries. I feel uneasy. This is so different from my childhood memories. The scene feels both stifling and chaotic. Is the assistance helpful? Are the adults’ words necessary?
We can’t return to the total free-range days of fifty years ago in our 21st century urban environment, but there must be some achievable middle ground between that and helicopter parenting.
How do we show these children trust and respect for the work that they do — play?
So I asked my seven year old grandsons while they were captive in the car on the way home from school. “You climbed all the way to the top of the climbing frame today. Would you or your friends like it if I called out “be careful” or “good job” or helped you to climb up?
Finn: “Nope. Everyone can make it to the top.”
Me: “Would you like me to say, “I’ll be your spotter?” Like in gymnastics?”
Finn: “What’s a spotter? I never know what that means when you say that.” That shoots down my favourite phrase from our preschool play gym days.
Jack: “You always say, “I’ll be here”. I like that. I like to know you won’t leave without us, that you’re watching out for us. I liked that you wore the red jacket today. I could see you.”
Finn: “Yeah, I understand what you mean when you say “I’ll be here”. I like that.”
I never noticed that I say that, just like my mum. The repeated phrase means something to them. I tell them where I am. They know where to find me. I sit still in my bright red jacket…visible, predictable. (Oh, and I am the keeper of the snacks.)
But, there’s a necessary additional meaning embedded within today’s “I’ll be here.” It means that I promise to remain engaged and fully present. I watch the boys play and would jump in quickly in an emergency, but there are rarely any collisions or falls. If they call out and wave, I’m able to quickly respond with “You did it!” It also means that my phone remains in my pocket.
With younger children, it’s even more important to stay attentive and aware of the child’s experience. It’s not enough to say, “I’ll be here” then disengage focus from them. Taking a look at a phone not only gives you a “flat” expression, which is confusing for young children, but allows enough time for a quick toddler dash to the road (um, I know this from personal experience!)
You can both observe and participate in play time by acknowledging their experiences, using sportscasting when they look at you seeking validation or attention. Sportscasting is just “say what you see” and is a great way to connect. Adding “I’ll be here” gives them the space to freely explore, knowing that they can trust you to be there the moment they need your input or help. “I’ll be here” also reminds me to stay attentive.
I was recently at an elementary school on a weekend, with James, who is two. He made a bee-line for the play structure that was for the kids in Grade 3–7, rather than the kindergarten area. He stood at the bottom of the ladder, looking up to the big slide. I sportscasted, “This is the big ladder for big kids. It looks like you’d like to climb it. I’ll be here, standing right here.” James climbed up two rungs and then climbed down when he discovered that the rungs were too far apart for him — today. I made sure not to lift him up to a place that was beyond his natural ability. He happily ran off to the kindergarten area.
At the kindergarten play area, I said, “I’ll be here,” and sat down on the bench while he played uninterrupted for about twenty minutes. He was deep in the flow of play. I trusted him to safely test his developmental limits. He tried some climbing and slipped half way up and climbed down again without needing my help. He navigated a bouncy bridge, laughed and did some sportscasting for himself — “I crossed the bridge by myself!” Then he ran off across a field to retrieve a ball, turned around and waved to me and called, “I’m far away!” I waved back.
So, when I say “I’ll be here’, that means that I’m right here, I’m safe, I’m predictable. I’m someone who trusts him to do his work of exploring and playing undisturbed. But I am engaged and present and ready to respond.
This feels like a good balance. With him waving at me from fifty feet away, this feels more like fifty years ago. Well, not exactly. My brother and I roamed the neighbourhood with real bows and arrows. But, that’s another story.