My kids haven’t set foot on a playground, other than the play set in our backyard, since early March 2020. Even though I know COVID-19 is a respiratory virus that typically spreads indoors, I also know little kids get extremely close to one another on playgrounds while waiting to use the same piece of equipment, at the top of a slide, etc. (Also, I know someone whose kids got COVID last summer after playing on a busy playground unmasked!) Therefore, I haven’t been too keen on going back to playgrounds with my children.
However, I decided it’s time for them to play on play structures again so long as they wear a mask, are willing to sanitize whenever I feel it’s necessary, and keep their hands off of their face. Think that’s overkill? Well, there’s one more thing they have to agree to. If there are too many unmasked kids on the playground, then we’re out — no matter what.
Yesterday, I brought this proposal to Isabelle. She agreed to my demands without hesitation (and was ready to leave the house, in the rain, to head to the nearest playground). This morning, I shared my non-negotiables with Ari and asked him if he’d like to go to a playground before my work day started. He agreed to my rules knowing we might leave at a moment’s notice.
“Which playground are we going to go to?” Ari asked.
I was thinking about an awesome play structure about 20 minutes away, but Ari didn’t remember what it looked like from pre-COVID times. He said, “I’d like to go to the one near the library.” It’s a much more basic playground, but since it was closer, I drove him there.
When we arrived, there was only one other woman and her son there. Ari climbed on the stairs, slid down the slides, and touched a variety of surfaces. For ten good minutes, I was cool.
As time passed, the unmasked boy bolted away from his mom, came right up to Ari, and pulled on Ari’s arm. His mom was several steps behind him so I asked him, “Do you have a mask?” He didn’t answer. (In all fairness, he looked no more than three and I was a stranger to him.) His mom ambled towards us. I was assertive, but polite, when I asked if her son had a mask. (He did.) I told her I’d appreciate it if he’d wear it if he wanted to play with Ari. She encouraged him to come over to their stroller to don the mask. He followed her, but wouldn’t mask-up so they stayed away.
As the minutes wore on, Ari’s confidence on the playground grew as he climbed steeper structures than what I remembered him being able to do over a year ago. As ten o’clock approached, more unmasked kids and caregivers arrived at the playground. By the time there were about ten kids, I looked at Ari and said, “Listen, buddy. Remember I said we’d have to leave if it got too crowded and kids weren’t wearing masks? It’s almost time to go. I know it’s earlier than what we expected since I don’t have anything until 11, but I’m not comfortable with how many unmasked kids there are since kids like to stand close to other kids.”
Shockingly, Ari didn’t put up a fight when I set the timer for five more minutes. Once the timer went off, he asked to take two more trips down the twisty slide, which I let him do despite two unmasked girls — whose caregiver was busy on her phone yards away — coming towards us. After his second slide, I said goodbye to the girls and told Ari, “Let’s sanitize.” He held out his hands, accepted the sanitizer, and rubbed it in.
Once Ari rubbed in the sanitizer, I held out my right hand, which he held. We walked a bit in silence. Once we neared the parking lot, I stopped walking, knelt beside him, and thanked him for being willing to leave since it was getting crowded. “Can I remove your mask for you?” I asked.
Once his mask was off, I noticed he his hangdog face. “Are you sad because we had to leave or sad because Bubbe and Zayde left this morning?”
“Because Bubbe and Zayde left,” he said.
“Are you sure? Because I want you to know, we will go back to more playgrounds — this one and other ones — this summer. Next time, we’ll just get out even earlier so that we aren’t there with lots of kids. Okay, buddy?”
“Okay,” he said.
My heart hurt. I truly didn’t know if he was upset about my parents leaving or about leaving the playground. All I knew is that I felt bad about leaving early. Even though I stipulated that we would leave if the playground got overrun with unmasked kids, I didn’t think it would actually happen. I guess, next time, we will make it our business to get to a playground by 8:30 or 9:00!