Playground Compassion: How To Make Public Spaces Kinder Places

Photo Credit: Adrienne Barnett @heydrin

Playground Compassion:

How To Make Public Spaces Kinder Places

When I was pregnant with both of my boys, my imagination went wild thinking of all the fun adventures we would have. We would run through sprinklers in the yard, go to the park and eat more pizza and cupcakes than I could ever imagine. I never once dreamt that taking my kids to the playground would cause me to have panic attacks. Then my younger son was born with a rare syndrome that causes him to have a facial difference, and the reality is, something as simple as taking my boys to the park gives me crippling anxiety.

You see, about 80 percent of the time we go to the playground, a child uses hurtful words when talking to or about my younger son.

One hundred percent of the time children (and adults) stop and stare at him.

I have spent a lot of time the last few years trying to think of ways to make the social aspects of my son’s life easier for him. My ultimate goal is to find ways to reduce the amount of stares and painful remarks ALL children with unique physical conditions endure. Many of my thoughts have centered around how to instill compassion into small children, specifically those in the 3-10 year age range.

I truly believe that most kids are not bullies. They just don’t understand that their words and stares are hurtful.

Through research, discussions with friends and inner dialogue, I have come up with five things I encourage other parents to do that might help make the playscape a safer space for ALL children.

1. Teach your children that it’s not polite to stare.

As my mom always said to me growing up, “It’s rude to stare.”

Watching how other children look at my son has given me the lenses to see just how true this statement is. It’s pretty rough to watch kids walk up to your son, stop in their tracks and gawk at him. He is usually just grinning back at them, hoping they want to play.  He is just a child who wants to swing from the monkey bars like all the other kids at the park.

Bottom line: Please teach your children that it is not nice to stare, no matter how unique they find someone’s appearance.

2. Tell your kids it’s okay to acknowledge differences, but to use kind words.

I know that people are going to notice that my son looks different. Most people have never seen a child with his syndrome and I completely understand that everyone is naturally curious about his appearance.

I also don’t mind if another child asks about his differences. It is okay to ask why my son looks “different.” It is not okay to say he is “scary” or “creepy.” Unfortunately these are words we hear quite often.

Ask your kids to think about the words they choose to describe someone who is different. Get them to think about their own differences. It could be the color of their eyes, the length of their hair, the scar on their knee. Then ask them how they would feel if someone said hurtful things about those differences. 

3.  Remember Bambi.

Remember that old adage from the movie Bambi, when Thumper says, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

It’s really simple. Remind your children constantly that if they have a thought about someone that isn’t nice someone, just don’t say it.

4. Don’t walk away. 

Many times when a child makes a comment about my son, their parents grab them, mutter “sorry” and hurry off. Please don’t do this. Use the situation as a teaching moment. Let us explain why he looks different and then hopefully our children will play together.

5. Be proactive, not reactive.

I would love to prevent these uncomfortable playground situations as much as possible. My hope is that parents will teach their children about physical differences BEFORE they encounter them. Then maybe they won’t be so surprised by these differences when they do see them. 

I know many parents “model” kindness for their kids, hoping this will teach them to be compassionate as well. I’m not suggesting that modeling good behaviors for our children won’t help or that it should come to an end. I just don’t think its enough. 

Before I had my younger son, I thought that if I modeled kindness for my older son, he would just be kind. The other day, I heard him make comment about a child being “different” on the playground. After that, I determined that I needed to be more proactive and start talking to him about physical differences.

With this in mind, I encourage you to find pictures of children with physical differences – kids with syndromes, kids with limb differences, kids with scars –  and show them to your children. Talk to your kids and tell them that these children have differences, but they are not scary.

Read them books like We’re All Wonders by R.J. Palacio. Watch movies like Finding Nemo and talk about Nemo’s “lucky fin.”

Tell your children that next time they see a child with a physical difference on the playscape they should ask them to play.

That unique child just may turn out to be their new best friend.  


  1. As a new mom who wants to ensure my child treats every other child with respect and kindness, this post gives me a clear directive on how to accomplish just that. Thank you, Liz, for sharing your journey and your insight, so the rest of us can be better moms and better examples for our children.


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