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‘My four-year-old boy loves the playground so much we can’t get him to leave’

Ask the Expert: He will promise to leave only to run back and go to the top of the climbing frame


I am a mother to a spirited, active three-year-old boy (four soon), who loves being out and about. His favourite place to go is a playground, but the trouble is, it can be very hard to get him to leave. When we go we can spend ages trying to get him to leave, with him promising to leave only to run back and go to the top of the climbing frame.

Sometimes, I end up shouting or dragging him out or I have to bribe him with a bag of crisps – which I hate doing. I know he loves playing there, but I just can’t spend all day there and sometimes I am under pressure to leave to collect his sister from school. It makes me want to avoid going in the first place, which would not be fair to him as he needs the activity so much. What do you suggest?


It is great that you understand how important the playground is to your active and energetic son. As well as being fun and engaging, the many climbing and moving activities in a playground are great for his development and health. While it is a challenge getting him to leave when you need to, it is also a sign of how engaged and happy he is.

Below are some ideas to help.


Schedule playground trips carefully

Schedule your playground trips when you have plenty of time. Particularly avoid a trip when you have a leaving deadline such as a school collection or going to another activity. The best times might be when you have an open-ended schedule and you can stay until he is finished his games and/or is ready to move on himself. Watch his mood and look for signs he is ready to leave. For example, there might be a lull in his energy when he has finished an activity, when the suggestion “Let’s go home now” will be well received.

Plan a rewarding activity afterwards

It can be useful to have a rewarding activity after the playground visit that you can sell to him if he is reluctant to leave. Even if the activity is not that inherently interesting, using a positive, upbeat tone of voice can make it more so. For example, you can remind him that “When we go home, we have playtime” or “We can listen to your music in the car”. Some young children respond well to a visual chart, which shows them all the routine steps in advance. For example:

  1. Playground
  2. Snack in car
  3. Collect sister
  4. TV time at home

This will help him prepare for what is happening and to self-manage.

It is also helpful to give advance warnings when the time to leave is approaching. “Five more minutes and then we will go” or “Let’s do three more turns on the swing and then its snack time”.

Remain calm and warm

If your son refuses to leave, you can be firm and warm. You might acknowledge his feelings and also remind him of the rule: “I know it is hard to go when you having such a good time ... but we can come again soon.”

Avoid overtalking or cajoling him to leave. Certainly, getting angry and arguing with him might fuel his opposition. Think of ways you might be able to remain calm, and follow through. For example, rather than chasing him around the playground (or up the climbing frame!) you might remind him once and then go and wait for him at the gate. Without attention he might simply follow you in a few minutes (fortunately most playgrounds are fenced with only one entrance). When he does comply, avoid the temptation to give out to him and try to be positive. “Great, let’s go now and collect your sister.” This will make it more likely for him to comply the next time.

As a last resort you may need to intervene physically and perhaps carry him out. If you do this, make sure to be calm gentle and warm: “I know you are sad, but we need to go now, but we can come again soon.”

Avoid ‘bribes’ and use planned rewards instead

Not only does it feel bad to offer the “bribe” of a packet of crisps to leave, it also makes it more likely that he will object to leaving the next time (as he learns that saying no and kicking up a fuss can get treats). If you do use a reward to encourage him to leave, it is best to plan this in advance. For example, you might say “We are going to the playground now, and after you can have your snack in the car”. Then if he objects to leaving, you can remind him: “If you leave now, you will have time for your snack.” This way he learns that doing what mum wants earns rewards.

If he does delay, you can reduce the reward later: “Because you took so much time to leave, you only get part of your snack – tomorrow when you leave on time you can get the whole packet.”

Remember, rewards don’t have to be food items and be things such as reading comics, iPad time, playing music and so on.

  • John Sharry is Clinical Director of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is author of several parenting books including Positive Parenting and Parenting Teenagers. See