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Mall play gym gives children — and parents — a taste of life in the 'jungle'

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By Nafari Vanaski
Thursday, May 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

There is no better place than a suburban shopping mall to measure the grittiness of your child, or to compare your kid to others to see if he's too small or big for his age or to wonder why that child can say his name and yours can't.

Oh, yeah, and it's supposed to be really good for socialization. You know, for your kid.

So we took a visit recently to the indoor play area at Ross Park Mall, which has books and slides, and a heavily padded play area — a nice plus.

The best part, however, is that the play area is ringed with comfortable seating for adults, just in case you don't want to follow your child around the entire time. And who wants to be one of those “helicopter moms” you read about in Time magazine? No, it's better to just bring a book for yourself and watch from a distance as your kid learns to play with others on his own.

A look up and it appears he's doing all right so far. Mostly, he climbs up to the top of the slide, hesitates, then climbs back down the steps. Usually takes 10 to 15 tries for him to go ahead and take the plunge. (Afraid of heights? Not my side of the family!) Minutes later, he's hanging out with a couple of other children, one of whom is usually a sick kid who's coughing all over the place — naturally. As adults, we don't have much of a problem spreading our illnesses around with little discretion. Why not just train a child thusly by taking her to play in a public area while she's fighting some offshoot form of SARS?

The playground must be where we got that other valuable childhood lesson: Share the wealth.

Sometimes these kids are tearing around the play area at full speed. They mostly manage to dodge each other, even when a collision seems inevitable.

Still, how much damage could slamming into another toddler do? They can go only so fast, right? Well, as long as the children are of like size. But you'd have to be one of those species that eat their young not to swoop in when you see your 21-month-old get kicked in the face by a much larger child coming down the slide sideways, probably only because the slide wasn't intended for a 10-year-old!

There is a “No Jumping” sign affixed to the side of one of the slides. Not as effective as you would think, though. Half the children can't read it because they're toddlers. The other half would read it, except they're hopped up on sugar and already have leapt off the side of said slide, on their way to landing on top of a smaller child crawling underfoot.

So where are their presumably literate parents? Can't they read? Sometimes it's hard to find them. Could be in Macy's. Or they could be outside smoking a cigarette, treasuring their 15 seconds of peace. But they're not where their kids are assaulting toddlers. That becomes pretty obvious when you have to scold, er, talk, to these bigger children about manners and find that no adult has ever stepped up to them and asked: “Why are you holding my child off the ground by the hair?”

Other than all of that, our boy is on his own, learning to play with others.

By the time we're ready to go an hour later, my book's practically been untouched. What's the name of that hardcover again?

Nafari Vanaski is a columnist for Trib Total Media. She now has two children following the birth of a daughter last month and is on maternity leave. Her column will return later, but you can reach her on Twitter @NafariTrib.

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