Spring's back, and so are its messengers—robins at the feeder, crocuses poking through the cold earth, and a sight you probably notice a lot more now that you're a parent: a crowd of children whooping it up at the local playground. Why not let your little one join in all the fun?
Chances are, your child will enjoy the playground a whole lot more now than he did when he was a baby, thanks to his rapidly improving motor skills. Until just recently, moving around was incredibly hard work for him—he was every bit as focused on learning how to walk steadily as on where he was actually going. "By his second birthday, he begins to get the general concept of how his body moves," says Janet O'Flynn, a pediatric occupational therapist in Hamilton, New York. "He can anticipate how it will feel to go on a swing or seesaw. He sees the other kids playing on them and thinks to himself, 'Wow! That looks like fun!'"
Best of all, as your child enjoys the playground equipment, he will also be learning some valuable lessons. Here's how to make sure he gets the most out of the experience.
Put your little one in your lap and ask her to look at a nearby object, like a tree or fence, as you gently sway. This helps her learn to hold her gaze steady while her body moves and to scrutinize objects from different angles. Later on, in school, this skill will come in handy, enabling her to recognize letters and numbers no matter who writes them and where they are—up on a blackboard, say, or in a book on a desk. By your child's third birthday, she may be able to sit on the big-kid swing all by herself. As you push her, say things like, "You're getting closer...now you're far away!" to teach her about direction. Soon she may be able to swing solo, pumping her legs at just the right moments.
Snuggle him in your lap and whoosh down together. When he's ready to go alone, start him at the slide's halfway point so he'll have a shorter trip. Stand ready to catch him, until he insists, "Me do it!" Then step aside. "This gives him a chance to practice his landing, which takes forethought and planning," explains Virginia Shiller, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and lecturer at the Yale Child Study Center, in New Haven, Connecticut.
As his third birthday nears, your child may also want to climb the slide's ladder by himself. If it's a warm day, first touch the slide to make sure that it isn't hot, then stay right behind him to spot him in case he loses his footing. But do let him try, because it will build his upper-body strength and may even enhance fine motor skills: Strong shoulders help kids hold pencils firmly, for instance, and make the motions required to form letters.
For safety's sake, scout out several parks in your neighborhood and see whether any of them are equipped with little-kid seesaws, specially proportioned to let young children keep their feet on the ground.
Your child may have difficulty staying on the seesaw at first, so sit right behind her, and ask another parent-and-kid twosome to take the opposite seat. Over time, seesaw sessions will help your little one learn to maintain her balance and to make eye contact with her partner, and will reinforce the meaning of "up" and "down."
Crawling through playground tunnels teaches kids to sense where their bodies are in space and to adjust their movements accordingly (veering right or left as the tunnel twists and turns, for example). This is a terrific muscle-building activity.
Stand behind your child as he first enters the tube so you can give him encouragement (or retrieve him quickly if he suddenly gets nervous and wants to get out). Once he's inside, relocate to the other end and use your voice to guide him. (Pick a short tube if your child is trying this for the first time, and don't pressure him—he may not feel ready to use this equipment until he's about 3 or so.) "There's a big feeling of accomplishment to emerge on the other end to Mom or Dad's waiting arms," says Maribeth Gorman, a senior occupational therapist at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago.