Kick high, hold tight

The backyard swing set is a lesson in physics, gravity and joy

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With big gatherings off our calendars, homeschooling on tap for kindergarten and even playgrounds an uncertainty, we decided to take the plunge and invest in a backyard swing set. But lousy weather pushed back construction, forcing my daughter to stare for two days at that giant box in our garage, like it was mocking her.

She seemed certain that if she only concentrated her willpower enough, the swing set would leap out of the box on its own and construct itself.

But now, the time has arrived. As the two of us wrestle with the (seemingly) 1,000 parts, and my wife chuckles at our attempts, watching Uma’s reaction before even sitting on one of the swings gives me an opportunity to consider the real meaning of play in a time of the pandemic.

The British child development psychologist Penelope Leach wrote about the connection between play and learning in her book “Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Age Five,” a fundamental tome in the new parenting movement that emphasizes the two-way relationship between parents and their child.

Of playtime, Leach writes, “For a small child there is no division between playing and learning, between the things he or she does just for fun and things that are educational. The child learns while living and any part of living that is enjoyable is also play.”

This is all so obvious, of course, and yet difficult in practice. When she scratches our fridge, she’s learning about magnetism. When she pushes a Slinky, that’s gravity. Make a mess on the table with glue and tape and you have engineering. Spend the afternoon coloring Pokémon, welcome to the world of art!

What will this swing set in her own backyard teach her? Physical fitness perhaps. Will she learn to be mindful of her breath as she pushes higher and higher, her legs kicking like pistons, reaching for the sky in a place she knows, laughing and surrounded by people she loves? Will she do chin-ups on the trapeze bar? Will she understand her limitations and strive to improve after the first time she scrapes an elbow or twists an ankle?

When I was growing up, my cousin up the street had an enormous swing set in her backyard. In my mind’s eye, I remember it as being two stories high, all rusty metal and sun-faded plastic; how my hands would smell of sweating iron on those summer days when we’d push for the top bar and lift the swing set legs a half foot off the ground.

I close my eyes for a moment in between rest breaks there in my own backyard 30 years later and consider what I learned from those days, how I can still feel the jolt in the pit of my stomach on every downward swoop.

Did I learn about gravity and physics and engineering? Or was joy and learning enough?

It takes us hours to put the whole thing together, but when it’s done, as I’m snapping the chained carabiners into the top eye hooks for the swing seat, Uma is right there at my hip, jumping and clapping. Her uncle and I hang from the top bar, testing our weight. The contraption appears sturdy.

I step back. “OK, baby, it’s all yours,” I say.

She flings herself onto the swing belly first, kicking herself upward. Then she turns around and reaches for the sky, pulling hard on the chains, kicking her feet until she has some air between her and the ground. Her skies are wide, her love and life deep, she pushes for the sun.

I watch the swing set footings, checking for lift but they hold fast. There’s no movement in the eye hooks. The cross bars appear tight. We’re good to go.

“Daddy,” Uma says. “Daddy!” She pulls me out of my head. She’s sitting there on the swing seat, stock still, looking at me, a scowl on her face.

“What’s the matter?” I ask. “Is something wrong?”

“Push me!”

Of course. So, there we are, a small family, in a northern town, in a backyard filled with vegetables and bees. We face the afternoon sun together. I pull her back, back while she counts down to zero, and as I let her go, her hair flying in the breeze, I think that just maybe, we can just play and that’s all we’ll need.

Dan Szczesny is a long-time journalist and writer who lives with his wife and energetic daughter in Manchester. Dan’s monthly column, Transcendental Dad, began in the September 2020 issue of ParentingNH. To learn more about Dan, read his interview with outgoing columnist, Bill Burke, at

Categories: Transcendental Dad