Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Toddlers Can Find the Playground Alone

Last night as I was lying in bed I suddenly couldn’t remember if we had fastened the chain lock on our front door. This has become a more urgent issue recently as our two and a half year old daughter has learned both how to turn the door handle and how to unlock the deadbolt on the door. Fortunately for us the chain lock is still well out of reach. Our daughter is also able to open her own room door and get out at night if she wakes up. I had a terrifying momentary vision of her waking up, opening the door to her room, wandering across the apartment to our front door, opening the front door and heading down the stairs to the playground at the back of our apartment. I got up and checked the door and to my relief discovered my husband had remembered to chain it shut before he went to bed.

The truly terrifying part is that I realized yesterday that my daughter would actually be perfectly capable of getting herself to the playground alone, and probably also back home again. Her grandmother was visiting yesterday evening and we took her out to play while my husband prepared dinner. My daughter led us out the front door and down the stairs to the playground. She led. We didn't have to show her. She was unhappy about coming back inside when playtime was over, so I coaxed her by asking her to help show her grandmother the long way back to our house, around the apartment building. So she did. She led again. She trotted ahead of us the entire half block, stopping occasionally so we could catch up, and pointing out the house of a neighborhood dog she particularly likes. She didn’t need any guidance or directions. She beat us home (within my sightline) and opened the front door of our apartment herself and then politely held it for us.

I have to admit, I was kind of stunned. Half pleased, half frightened. It always startles me when she shows how much she knows and understands about her world. I am so used to thinking of her as a baby but she really isn’t anymore. The odd thing is, I can remember myself fairly clearly at that age. I have distinct memories that I can date back to about 2 years and 8 months, when my younger sister was born. That’s about how old my daughter is now. I know I didn’t see myself as a baby at that time of my life.

I can remember going outside alone when I was three, and not just in our yard either but around the neighborhood to the playground down the street. I remember that I wasn’t allowed to cross the street by myself. I remember getting lost in the neighborhood once with another little girl, who was about a year older than I was. So I know, in some sense, that my daughter is old enough to be capable of navigating her way to and from the playground. We’ve certainly walked the route with her many, many times and she is a smart little girl. And yet her capability still unnerves me.

I’m not going to be letting her go to the playground without supervision the way I did at her age. The world just doesn’t feel safe enough for me to do that. I’m not even sure it’s legal, to be honest, but regardless it’s a rather horrifying idea that she could get out on her own and go play at this age. I’m still going to be checking to be sure our front door is secured before I fall asleep.

Yet I would like to nurture her skills and her independence. I want her to have the sense that she is capable of managing herself in this big world without mommy or daddy’s direct presence. I’m not sure what age is safe for her to play alone outside. Or perhaps it’s not a question of age but of accomplishments to master (knowing her name, address, phone number; being trustworthy about not crossing streets alone; and staying away from strangers seem like some basics) before she can take her own voyages to the playground. So while I’m locking the door I’ll be thinking about how and when to let her make some of her own adventures, without us.