Vienna’s winters are very dark, with relatively few hours of daylight.  Between November and February, my kids leave the house before the sun has properly risen, and come home after it has set.  We spend months only playing outside on the weekends, or in the dark (and cold) of early evening.  It’s tough on all of us.  The boys go a bit stir-crazy with tons of unspent energy, bouncing off the walls and bothering each other a lot more than usual, and I get absolutely frozen keeping vigil in the dusky playground while they brave the cold to climb and slide and swing a little.

I suspect that principally because of these long winter months, Vienna has several indoor “play parks”, but, until recently, we had never been to one.  I only had a vague idea of what they entailed, but I imagined massive McDonald’s-play-area-style ball pits and plagues of flu and stomach virus running through the revelers, so we had never gone.  Plus, my kids had never heard of them, so they weren’t asking to go.  I would have happily lived through our Vienna experience, and just skipped it entirely.

But last fall, B and Liam were invited to a friend’s birthday party at “Monkipark“, one of these indoor play places at a shopping mall we’d never been to.  B had heard all about it from the birthday boy, and he was so excited.  I was still apprehensive, but happy to try it out.

445It was not quite what I expected.  It was HUGE inside, and crazy, and chaotic.  In true Viennese style, the parents weren’t particularly hovering over their kids … and there were SO MANY kids, from toddlers to teenagers, running free in the play area.  There was a massive, inflatable climbing and sliding area, where my boys ran first.  (Being me, I did hover, so I went right along with them.)  It was crazy, but it was great fun.  It was like a giant, inflatable obstacle course.  The boys climbed, balanced, swung, bounced, and slid down a two-story-high slide.  And then they did it again.  And again.  And when they got tired of that, there was an indoor climbing wall, and soccer court, a ropes course (which was only for bigger kids), a bank of trampolines and a go-kart track.  And that was in addition to the snack bar and the private party rooms where the birthday boy invited us all for chicken nuggets and birthday cake.  It was impressive, and we all had a great time (though I still imagine that most kids come out of there with some illness they didn’t have before).  We really enjoyed it, and I understand it better now.  And it’s good that we liked it, because I’d put even odds that at least one of my guys will want to have their birthdays there this year.

THIS is a Spielplatz!

010I’ve talked a lot about how much I appreciate the playgrounds here.  They’re less safe, undoubtedly, than those back home, but the ones here provide much more opportunity for my kids to challenge themselves physically and mentally, to accomplish things they didn’t think that they could, and to sometimes make the choice to back down from a challenge that is too great for them.  Sometimes the ladders are too high, the ropes too wobbly, the slides too steep.  I like seeing them make their own choices about what is a reasonable amount of risk to take on.  (After all, aren’t we faced with choices like that our whole lives?)



078I forget sometimes that however challenging and extreme our neighborhood playgrounds seem by my American standards, they are nothing in the overall scheme of Austrian playgrounds.  Two weekends ago, Liam wanted to visit a playground that we’ve been to before, out in the western outskirts of Vienna (at Am Himmel).  Since we’d last been in the fall, they’ve updated a lot of the equipment, making this one of the most challenging playgrounds the kids have ever been to.  Liam remembered it for the “giant slide” — a 10-12′ tall slide (with no railings) that gives me butterflies every time either of my kids climbs it.  After the update, that is now seriously one of the tamer elements.


My kids had a blast, and I survived (just barely … just kidding).  I think these places to play are fantastic.  Yes, I bet kids get hurt here all the time.  I imagine that teeth get chipped, arms get broken.  And I know if something like that happened to one of my kids, I’d be likely to beat myself up over having allowed them to take those risks.  But it is truly amazing to watch them in this environment, pushing their limits, accomplishing difficult things, working out solutions, and sometimes deciding that a challenge is too ambitious.  In this moment, I do believe it’s wort the risk … and it’s also an absolute ton of fun, for all of us.


School is great

For the first 6 weeks or so, when I would arrive at school to pick B up, he’d look at me (rather forlornly) and say, “I want to go home”.  For the past few weeks, I’ve suspected that this has been more of a habit than an expression of actual sadness — if I sneak up to the window in the classroom, I can get a peek of him playing happily with the other kids, and the teachers have been reporting that he’s been joining in the group activities and playing enthusiastically with the other kids.  Lately, on the way home, when I ask him how his day was, he invariably says “It was great!”  He’s been adding to his list of friends almost daily — he recently told me that he has the same number of friends as he does fingers.

Today, when I got to school and peeked in, he was playing with a little girl, building a Lego train.  When the other kids alerted him to my presence (they always do, which is why I have to be sneaky if I want to see what he’s up to) he turned around and said, “Mommy!  Come see!”  It was the first time he’d ever beckoned me into the classroom, rather than running to meet me at the door.  I went to check out his Lego train, and got to meet his new friend, Felicity, and then I told him it was time to go.  At which point he asked if he could add just one more car to the train . . . and then just one more . . . and then just one more . . . at which point, the effort of fighting to keep Liam in my arms (he wanted to play, too) caused me to pull the plug on his fun.


On the way home, he told me all about his great day and how he wants to go back tomorrow.  Later, over lunch, he told me he was a little sad.  I asked why, and he told me, “I didn’t have a much time at school.  I wanted to stay a bit longer.”

I’m so glad he feels this way.  This is what I’d been hoping would happen — that he wouldn’t just tolerate school, but would actually look forward to it.  That he wouldn’t count the minutes until I came to pick him up, but he would want to stay a little longer.  I want him to have fun, make friends, a learn a little.  I feel like we’re starting to get there.

Playing tent

A long time ago (in relative terms) Benjamin started playing “tent” with his Grandma.  They would climb into “her” bed (the guest bed at our house) and pull the covers over their heads.  They’d bring a flashlight, and lots of toys, and sometimes books to read, too.  Benjamin LOVES this game — it’s one of the first games he ever played, and he plays it enthusiastically with anyone who will participate.

He hasn’t gotten much chance to play for a while.  He played it when my mom came to visit, and when Dan’s parents came (they’ve been trained to play, too).  Dan and I will play with him from time to time, but it’s a tough game to play with one parent and two children in a bed — too much chance of someone toppling out onto the wood floor.  So, it’s most often reserved for when one of the grandparents visits, or when we have some one on one play time with B (which doesn’t happen as often as I wish it would — and when it does, it is usually spent on trips to the park or other outdoor endeavors).

Today, Benjamin was pretty heartbroken at the idea of going to school.  On the way, I was trying to think of something for him to look forward to in the afternoon — something to think about other than the two hours of school ahead of him.  It’s rainy and cold today in Vienna, and all the fun activities I could think of are outside things:  going to the park, blowing bubbles on the terrace, coloring with sidewalk chalk . . . I was stuck.  But then, I thought of playing tent!  So, I propsed the idea to him.  He was delighted.  He was still pretty sad about having to go to school, but every time I reminded him that after school, we’d go home, make a tent on the couch, get a flashlight and some books and play in the tent, he’d brighten up a bit.

It turned out that he had a great day at school:  he played, he did arts and crafts, he had a snack (lots of grapes and lots of cake).  After school, we came home, had a “snack” (otherwise known as lunch, but if I call it lunch, he won’t eat it), took a nap.  And after nap time, we got out a sheet and built a tent in our living room.  We got the flashlight, collected some books and toys, rounded up Liam, and all climbed into our couch tent (which is much more manageable than the tent in the bed).  Benjamin and Liam had a wonderful time, and so did I.  It was my favorite part of my whole day.

Sleepover with Grandma

Benjamin is really getting in to the idea of camping.  For several practical reasons, starting with the fact that we have a 10 month old and ending with the fact that our tent is in storage somewhere in Virginia, that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.  However, he loves to play “tent”.  He climbs under the covers of a bed, or under any available blanket, sheet or towel, puts all of his stuffed animals or other precious toys inside and pretends he’s in a tent.  He always has to play tent with someone else — usually his Grandma.  This has provided hundreds of hours of enjoyment for Benjamin and various members of his family.

Last night, he and Grandma did one better — Benjamin actually had a sleepover with Grandma on the futon in the living room.  Benjamin hasn’t ever had such an intentional sleepover.  (There were a few times, as a baby, that I took him to bed with me out of desperation, and then there were the infamous times when we first moved here when he was sleeping on the couch or on a mattress on the floor which probably felt a lot like camping — they did to me, at least.)  He absolutely loved it.  Apparently, he fell asleep nearly instantly and slept all night.  He was so happy to wake up with his Grandma this morning, and he just asked me if he could have a sleepover with his Grandma again tonight (which I’ve vetoed, because I’m not sure how well he really did sleep, as he was a bit out of sorts all day).  Later this week, Grandma is going to “camp out” on the air mattress on Benjamin’s floor in his room, too.

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I think he’s really enjoying having his Grandma visit, and getting to go “camping”.  Other than being outside, and roasting marshmallows, the best part of camping is getting to have a sleepover, anyway.  I’m so happy that Grandma is here to visit — I love having her here, and I know how much this means to my boys.

Playing in Vienna

002Much (if not most) of the playground equipment in Vienna would never exist these days in the US.  It would either be outlawed by lawsuit-fearing local regulators or dismantled in the dark of night by overprotective soccer moms.  A lot of it is reminiscent of the playgrounds I played on as a kid:  the equipment is made of metal and wood, it’s too high, there aren’t guardrails, the ground is sometimes just ground or wood chips (not cushy recycled rubber), there are uncovered sandboxes, the swings still hang from chains and the slides probably get very hot in the summer time.  But, they go beyond that, too.  They have tables and planks set on springs, which are designed to be unstable and to be fun to balance on (but also challenging for a little kid).  There was an actual zip line in a park we went to last week — no signs or fences or anything to prevent a kid walking under it from getting clobbered by the kid on the zip line.  Several of the parks we’ve been to even have some kind of running water feature.

The one we went to today had a water pump (complete with pinching hazard!) that poured water onto large rocks.  Actual rocks.  Big, hard, jaggedy rocks — larger than basketballs — which were part of the sandbox area .  It is a huge culture shock for me.  I can’t help it — I’m a product of my socialization.  All I could think of was how I needed to prevent Benjamin from pinching his fingers in the pump, or hitting himself or another kid in the head with the pump handle, and then, once the water was running, make sure he didn’t slip on the (now wet) large, jaggedy rocks and crack his head open or knock out some teeth.  So, of course, I did all of those things.  But I can tell the Austrians are rubbing off on me, at least a little.  Because although I had a strong desire to protect my child from all of these perceived dangers, I also realize that we’ve been here 3+ weeks, and we’ve been to a lot of playgrounds and I’ve seen a lot of kids playing on what are (to my American sensibilities) complete deathtraps of playground equipment.  And I have yet to witness a single injury.

007I’m not blind to the fact that they could still get hurt (and probably do).  But I’m beginning to remember that with proper guidance and supervision, a child can actually play in a world that is not completely bubble wrapped for the sake of their protection.  (My father will read this and be horrified that it took a move to Europe to remind me of an idea he raised me with — and one that still exists in his backyard.)  I’ve known it, intellectually, but it’s been a rare event that I’ve had to use my own judgement on whether a piece of playground equipment is safe for Benjamin back in the states (other than maybe not being age appropriate).

Today, Benjamin made a friend at the playground, whose name is Alex.  They played in the sandbox with Alex’s truck and shovels, used the water pump, played on the swings and the slide and the see-saw.  They were very well supervised my us and by Alex’s grandma.  I did not hover, or hold his hand 100% of the time, and still, no one got hurt.  (Benjamin was even willing to give Alex back his dumptruck before we left the park.  Success!)