White Knuckle Parenting: Wheaton Regional Playground—Terrific or Terrifying?

My family finally got a chance to check out Wheaton Regional's renovated playground. My kids had a blast. I had a panic attack.


Let's talk about , shall we? Now, I know that the renovated playground over there opened at the end of September, but I didn't get a chance to visit with my kids until a couple of weeks ago. 

The first thing I want to say is that my kids had a blast. There are giant slides, a climbing mound, swings, a climbing web, plentiful sand, and more than enough playground equipment to keep my three children happy for hours. 

I, on the other hand, nearly had a panic attack. The playground seemed intentionally designed to help kids escape from their parents. For instance, there is a giant, fenced, raised boardwalk bisecting the playground. Its sole purpose seems to be to obstruct parents' view of their kids and to provide child-sized escape routes for those same kids. 

Like that cement pipe in the photo above that runs under the walkway. That seems like a good habit to encourage—stuffing ourselves into ground level pipes.

I remember back in the day when the playground at Wheaton Regional was made entirely out of splintery wood, metal slides, and that dangerously long blue slide. It was awesome. It was also a little intense to go there with my three kids because at the time they were younger and didn't stick together and I tended to lose track of them and I always joked that if I were a kidnapper, Wheaton Regional was the first place I would show up. (I'm the mom that makes inappropriate jokes at inappropriate times.)

I have to say, though, that I think they managed to make it worse.

I wrote about this over at my personal blog the other day and I got some mixed reactions. Some people were all, "Yeah. I KNOW." and some people were all, "I find your parenting irresponsible. How dare you make an effort to keep an eye on your kids in a public place? You are one step away from being abusive." 

I'm not kidding. I was called "oppressively observant" in the comment section. I didn't even know what that means.

I have a 10-year-old whom I gave up on trying to keep track of entirely. I figured that he was the least likely to wander off. That is the price of competence. Sorry, oldest kid. My 6-year-old needs supervision because, well, he is the most likely to ricochet off of the six-foot drop disguised as a climbing wall. We're saving our money to send him to clown college.

Then there is my 8-year-old. He is autistic and he doesn't seek out a parent when he suddenly decides that he wants to go see what is on the other side of the train tracks on the other side of the park. Trust me, once you've had to call 911 because your kid slipped away from you, you don't want to have to do it again. Not to mention that when you have a kid with communication difficulties, it's a good idea to hang out near him to facilitate conversation between him and other children. Otherwise someone is going to end up in tears—and it's not always me.

My reality is that I have to keep eyes on most of my kids most of the time. I don't, you know, make them hold my hand at the park, but I can't sit down and read a magazine—or carry on a coherent conversation with another adult. It occurred to me at some point that we should have arranged a meeting spot so our kids could always know where to find us. Unfortunately "at some point" was long after we had returned home.

I'll probably go back to this playground, but not with three kids by myself, because it is literally (and I mean that in the most literal sense) impossible to keep track of multiple kids at that place.

I did some extensive research (read: quickly Googled) the park and came up with maybe the greatest quote ever on Montgomery Parks' very own website: "The playground promises to be so much fun that we wish adults could enjoy it too!" Me too, Montgomery Parks. Me too.

I am dying to know what you think about the playground. Am I crazy for being flipped out over this place? Am I really oppressively observant? Maybe I'm viciously vigilant? Maybe I didn't find that magic observation point where I could see the whole park? Or am I right and this is the most terrifying park in the history of parks?

Jean, a.k.a. Stimey, writes a personal blog at Stimeyland. Check it out for far more detail about her afternoon at Wheaton Regional. She also runs an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont; and a column called Autism Unexpected in the Washington Times Communities. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey.

Jean Winegardner January 20, 2012 at 03:04 AM
You're totally right, I didn't participate in the process. (I also wasn't aware of it.) And, yes, the playground will stay the way it is. And, yes, it is WONDERFUL that it is wheelchair accessible. And it is a really fun park. But I think anyone with multiple kids, disabled or not, will have a hard time keeping track of everyone there. But I think mostly you're right—it's both wonderful and not wonderful, like most things in life, there's a little of both.
Shawn Punga January 24, 2012 at 08:24 PM
Here's your chance for input on future parks. http://wheaton-md.patch.com/events/down-county-open-house-on-park-recreation-and-open-space-pros-plan-update I'll be there looking to raise more biking opportunities for all ages, such as riding on natural surface trails, skills parks and pump tracks as ways to get more people out having fun on their bikes. I'll also be asking for more pocket parks in within neighborhoods so that major roads such as Georgia and University Blvd don't need to be crossed in order for children to get them.
JCobb February 07, 2012 at 04:37 PM
Just saw this post. Went to the playground recently and didn't see the issues others saw. I didn't bring three kids, though, just two. Had a blast. Easy enough to chase around two (chalk it up as my daily exercise). Three could be more challenging depending on their behavior. In any case, fantastic redesign of the playground. Highly recommend it.
Lesley Gramaglia April 08, 2012 at 04:22 PM
We've been to the Wheaton park and I think it is a beautifully designed, modern space. I do recall thinking, "this is not a park for small children." My 9 and 11 year old children love it and are thrilled to have structures suitable for their size and capabilities. It's so nice to see lots of other "older" children enjoying the park, laughing and getting some exercise. Some of the other playgrounds in our community are clearly intended for younger children and I think this offers great opportunities to kids of all ages. Personally, when I had younger children, I found going to any playground difficult because I had to keep a constant eye on them. I don't think Wheaton is so bad....have you been to the Clemyjontri park in Mclean???? That is a neat playground but it's impossible to keep track of your kids! We all have to find what works for our kids and our own sense of safety and independence. I'm happy that the county designed something with older kids in mind, and happy that Wheaton got some attention.
Verbatim January 08, 2013 at 06:27 PM
I am so disappointed in the new Wheaton park. I think the whole thing was designed to get the kids to break a sweat while they're at the park, which is why they have to walk a quarter of a mile every time they want to go down the slides. The climbing structures leave no room for imagination-- no places to just sit and pretend you're in a ship or a treehouse, unlike the old park. It is like a gym for kids, and I'm sure they designed it that way on purpose, but for my kids, it just isn't any fun. I hope the rest of the parks in the county don't go in this direction.


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