A couple of weeks ago, after about the third or fourth cycle of “The Hot Dog Dance” on “Mickey Mouse Club House,” I’d decided that Lily, 22 months, could use a little fresh air before we risked her melding into the sofa like an upholstered Han Solo.
So I packed her and 2-month-old Jovie up in the car and headed over to the tot lot at Cousler Park in Manchester Township.
It was one of those glorious sunny-but-not-searing days and the playground was packed.
Kids of all sizes were dangling on monkey bars, darting through tunnels, dashing up slides. Their moms, dads, grandmas and caretakers stood at the fringes chatting amongst themselves, occasionally stopping to hydrate their child or watch feats of daring. Those with toddlers shadowed their charges — hoisting them onto swings and waiting for them at the bottom of slides.
All except for one little girl.
The playground at Cousler Park is divided into two sections — one recommended for children ages 2 to 5 and the other for older children.
Lily, of course, had no interest in playing with her fellow toddlers that day. She grabbed my hand and pulled me over to the big-kids side, where we scaled stairs and scooted down slides (no easy feat for me with Jovie strapped to me in a sling).
As Lily dragged me around, I noticed the little girl about her age braving it with the big kids. She ambled from here to there, unfazed by the surrounding chaos.
What made her stick out to me was what wasn’t nearby: A mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, older sibling or babysitter.
I thought she might have belonged to a woman standing not too far off, but I didn’t have a chance to confirm this before Lily led me away.
Not too long after, I spotted the little girl again. This time ducking under a maze of tunnels. Still no adult behind her.
A few minutes later, I saw her wander over to the swings where a mom was pushing her daughter. I didn’t think the woman had noticed the little girl getting closer, so I edged toward the swingset while still trying to keep Lily in sight.
Just as the swinging child was about to knock the little girl over the mom spotted her and stopped the swing. I jumped over and pulled her out of the way. The woman and I had just enough time to exchange glances about how scary the moment was before I turned around to make sure Lily was still in the vicinity.
The little girl wandered off again.
I should’ve followed her. But I didn’t.
Now Lily wanted to swing. The park has several low-to-the-ground, chair-like swings, and I put Lily in one. A boy was swinging in the seat next to us when the little girl showed up again. Alone.
She evicted the boy from the swing, climbing up over the seat behind him. Before he left, the boy looked over at me as if to say, “You’re her mom, right? Do something.”
The girl was struggling to get into the seat so I asked her if she needed help. She didn’t respond, but I’m used to unresponsive toddlers, so I straightened her out in the seat, lowered the restraint and started pushing her.
I asked her if she could point to where her mom or dad was. No answer.
I asked her if she liked swinging. No response.
I went back to the mom or dad question. Nothing.
She eventually started pushing the restraint up. Not wanting her to get knocked in the head I helped her out of the swing.
But I didn’t follow her.
I watched as she walked over to a boy on the tire swing. Even he scanned the playground for her parents.
By now I was upset. This child was too young to have been wandering around by herself. There should’ve been a grownup following her — preventing her from going too close to swinging children, making sure she didn’t fall off ledges or get run down by kids playing tag.
The playground was fenced in, so maybe she wouldn’t have been able to leave, but someone could’ve taken her.
And outside of being concerned about her safety, I was sad that she didn’t have anybody to play with.
My physical reaction to this situation was unexpected. As I pushed Lily I kept surveying the playground for the girl, fighting tears. My heart beat faster and I felt short of breath.
I was angry with myself for being too scared to speak up on her behalf. For not grabbing her little hand and walking around to every adult in the playground and asking if she was theirs until I tracked down the person who should’ve been horrified that a stranger was able to get so close to her child.
I felt paralyzed, though. Too afraid of the potential confrontation to do anything.
Eventually, I made my way to entrance of the park. The little girl was there eating lunch with her mom. I watched as she wiped the girl’s cheek, played with her hair and offered her more to eat.
I thought about saying something. Anything.
“Your little girl is so sweet, my daughter and her were just playing together.”
Or “Your little girl is so fearless … she walked right up the swings and wasn’t worried at all about getting knocked over.”
Or “The playground is so crowded today, I’m worried your little girl might get hurt playing by herself.”
But I ignored my much braver inner advocate. I’m not the perfect parent, either. Maybe I hover too much. Don’t give Lily enough independence.
And anyway, it wasn’t any of my business how she chose to care for her child.
Later, as Lily, Jovie and I were getting ready to leave the park, I saw the little girl’s mom bent over her cell phone. I looked around and saw the little girl was heading back toward the swings.
I paused for half a beat as the little girl disappeared behind the playground equipment.
But I didn’t say anything.
Susan Jennings is mom to Lily, 22 months; Jovie, 3 months; Snacks the dog; and Bart, Peanut Butter and Delaney the cats. She is also wife to Brad the human.