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The Playground Is My Third Place

My world is smaller than it was before I became a parent. But kid-friendly places have shaped my social life in unexpected ways.

We had some child-free friends over for dinner the other night. My husband had done most of the cooking during nap time, so we could be social. We persuaded my 2-year-old, who likes to imagine himself at the center of a very tame crisis, that he needed to gather all the cloth napkins in the house and put them at the feet of our guests, on the living room floor.

“They’re in the KITCHEN,” he screamed. “I’m on my way!”

And then we were just four adults, having alcohol and cheese and talking. The conversation became about parenthood in the abstract way it sometimes does between people who just had kids and those who are thinking about having them. Like, what is your life like? I found myself swearing that I had a full and effortless social life.

Really? My friend was skeptical. He never sees his friends with kids anymore.

The 2-year-old added a terry cloth mop cover to the pile of napkins. “We need some more,” he said, thundering away from us. “Jet speed!”

It was true, I admitted, that I don’t manage to make social plans much anymore. Monthly, maybe. But what I felt the need to try to convey, and still feel the need to publicize, as a representative of Those Who Have Dropped Off The Map, is that I don’t need to make as many plans anymore, because I have the playground. And the pool and the kids’ room at the library. The coffee shop that has high chairs and this one brewery that maintains — and the hospitality of this can move me to tears — a big bucket of dirty, old toy trucks.

Kid-friendly spaces are few and far between. My world is smaller than before I became a parent, but it has become passively social in a way that I associate with less anxious, less lonely times. Parents are all on roughly the same schedule (an early one), and children respond well to routines. Faces become familiar very quickly.

There was a period this summer when we were the first ones at the playground every Saturday, closely followed by another family with a kid the same age. We became inclined to go, knowing that they might be there, and soon an organic, zero-pressure standing hang was formed. The couple had interesting jobs and a funny running narrative about each other’s parents. We became friends to the point where I thought, oh I should text them this, before I remembered I didn’t have their numbers.

The playground had become our vaunted “third place” — neither home nor work — that I longed for in my 20s. Where I’m likely to run into an acquaintance but, if I don’t, it’s not weird to sit and read a book, or pretend to read a book and eavesdrop. From a bench on the opposite end of the tot lot, I’ve been listening to one woman plan her entire wedding over the phone while her infant sits on the sandy turf, one pudgy hand resting on a ride-on caterpillar. If I failed to have such a spot earlier in my life, it’s not because I wasn’t a parent, but because I failed to commit to anything the way my son has committed to the swings. And perhaps because I expected too much from third places and the people you meet there.

The primary social value of other parents is that we’re in the same place at the same time, in the most literal sense.

As far as third places go, the playground is not particularly comfortable. The benches are cold. But it’s free, and it never closes. I would love it if the playground had coffee or beer, but I have come to appreciate the subtler mood-elevating effects of vitamin D and low-stakes social interaction. Trading opinions with a stranger about Netflix and restaurants and nearby hikes just feels better than looking at Twitter, no matter how little intel I take away. There’s one woman I see at the playground and our whole relationship is we compare our relative locations on the waiting list for toddler gymnastics. (As of this writing, her son is in and mine is out.)

Even on the days when I don’t feel like small talk, it is stimulating, on an almost subconscious level, to be dumped into a new pond of people. At the playground, one can’t help but notice that the dad pushing the swings has incredible triceps, or that a mom has a seemingly endless supply of top-notch coats. I like listening to people grandparent in languages other than English, and I love how newer moms look at me like I’m a different species, even though I still feel like I am one of them. It’s moving to watch someone else’s kid sprout up, become an older sister, graduate to the big-kid playground, even if you never learn their name.

People talk about mom friends as if it was the deep, existential aspect of parenthood that bond us with other people undergoing the same transformation. Or as if our new interest in sleep training, day care, and phonics was so powerful that we only wanted to socialize with other people who share it. But my experience has been that the primary social value of other parents is that we’re in the same place at the same time, in the most literal sense.

The closest analogue to the playground that I can think of is a college dorm on a Friday night. The quality of the company may vary, but kid-friendly spaces reliably take me from being alone to hanging out, no invitation necessary. At the playground, nobody has to clean up, and it’s no big offense if you bail. I think the kids are better there, too. Mine would not even let me loan a neighbor kid one of his sippy cups at home, but he can weirdly handle taking turns with the communal toys in the sand pit. I also don’t have to worry about anybody’s drywall when he runs full-tilt pushing a toy meant for an infant learning to walk.

Recently, I realized that you can just text a bunch of people, say you’re ordering pizzas to the playground, and ask if anyone wants in. That’s dinner, gross motor play, and adult conversation, all checked off, without washing a single dish.

Well, we could do that, but my local playground has one major flaw, which is that it does not have any lights. Between the cold and the dark, it’s hard to find playground hours this time of year. We’re home a lot, having predawn foot races between the kitchen and front door. It’s been a good season for more intentional, deeper hangs: Getting to know playground-friends better, finding out if they might become friend-friends, and reconnecting with the people who have more interesting things to do than head out for the park at 9 a.m. with a slide-cleaning squeegee and bag of Pirate’s Booty.

But I am counting down to our glorious return. When I accidentally drove past the playground the other day, the 2-year-old sobbing “my playground, my playground” from the pitch-black back seat, I remembered the first warm day last year. We decided to walk to the playground, and everybody had the same idea. The place was packed. Standing room only, with a half-dozen separate adult conversations happening in different corners. There were people we saw all over and faces we had never seen before. Our friends were there, talking to other people we knew, though we didn’t know they knew each other. A cool dad we had met once was talking about the still-visible moon with his daughter, a phase of parenting that seemed impossibly far off to us. A slightly older crew of parents was drinking cocktails out of travel mugs, keeping an eye on their preschoolers while bouncing their infants. We had a distinctly freshman feeling, that more and better forms of fun awaited us.