Unlikely Classroom: Learning Life Lessons at Busch Gardens

I left my mommy comfort zone, but it was great.  Here’s what I did <big breath>: I took my girls to a theme park by myself and survived.

Better than surviving the day (or most of a day—we still go home for late afternoon naps) I figured out that even though I am an Orlando-area native and considered myself a pro at doing theme parks, as a parent I’ve been missing the point.

This was my epiphany, as it burbled up in me on a sunny day at Busch Gardens with two girly girls aged 3 and 5: Theme parks can teach. Theme parks can serve as schoolhouses to instruct kids, in a relatively controlled environment, about things that can help them in the big wide world. (Check out how it can also help with sensory skills!)

Busch Gardens

Photo Credit: greyloch

I didn’t start my day expecting an a-ha moment. As dear husband got ready for work, I corralled 2 squirmy and delighted balls of energy into outfits, contained hair, and packed breakfasts (and sweet, life-sustaining coffee) to eat on the drive over. We got to the parking lot before the attendants did, and were on the first trolley over to the park. After registering our Pre School passes and buying my Fun Card, we went in. The first thing I did (after mandatory bathroom breaks) was get more coffee.  Then I looked around.

Theme parks are a crucible for family relations. I really hope anthropologists have studied the interpersonal dynamics of families at theme parks (if not, here’s a dissertation idea, you’re welcome!) because it often comes down to competing agendas. My girls’ agenda was “RUN RUN RUN FUN FUN FUN FACE PAINTING CHURRO EATING PLAYGROUND FROLICKING BABY ANIMALS”

I just want to see flamingos and ride the sky carts.

We ended up doing most of the above, and in the mean time I had the opportunity to reinforce the following lessons.

    1. Take turns

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Photo Credit: Etrusia UK

Waiting is the hardest part. (now that’s in your head) For the under-6 set, it’s almost intolerable. But like pickles and olives, repeated exposure to having to wait in line makes it so much easier to stomach. I may not love waiting for the train to arrive at Stanleyville station, but I know that if my girls practice now we can hopefully avoid them being the kind of annoying adults who complain loudly about Things That Are Just Life.

  1. Be polite 

I teach college freshmen, so when I see the twenty-something attendants at BG rides, I see them and wonder about their lives.  I think of my hilarious, witty, smart, and charming students, and I remember the stories they tell me of crappy jobs and mean customers. So I prompt my girls to say “thank you” to all park staff who help them. I don’t have to, but I see how reinforcing this behavior all the time makes it second nature. Yesterday both my girls thanked their gymnastics instructors without my prompting. They thank the teachers who help them in the car line. They thank their grandparents for hugs and snacks. Going to the theme park just gave them one more venue for practicing the everyday politeness that will be the social lubricant of their adult interactions.

  1. We are a team

Big Sis wants this, Little Sis wants that. Mommy wants a third thing. OK, let’s find a way to make fun happen for everyone. As a former girl scout, my life–and mom–motto is Be Prepared. So the competing desires of the three of us lead to a few huddled meetings, which resulted in plans for the next few attractions to visit and in what order we would visit them. Some attractions had to be delayed until the next visit so the team could complete the majority of the proposed items.  The girls seemed to get that we are a team, we are all in this together, yet everyone cannot be happy all of the time. Everyone can, however, feel valued and loved by the decision making process.

  1. Independence

Like many moms, I’m basically terrified that my two darlings will be kidnapped by sex traffickers. Every news article and undergrad research paper I read about the prevalence human trafficking just underscores this fear, and I also blame the Liam Neeson movie Taken. (WORST.MOVIE.FOR.PARENTS.EVER) So my instinct is to tie my daughters to my (purely hypothetical) apron strings. But I know that I can’t. That isn’t real life.6971348361_cdd4630143_k

Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson

At Busch Garden’s Sesame Street area there is a huge, multi-level, tree-shaped climbing structure that is basically little kid heaven. Of course, the Fear in my brain yells, “there’s a Sweeny Todd-esque trap door chute in there leading to a room of sex traffickers!” but I’m pretty sure Fear is wrong. For the first time, I let my girls run around in that thing by themselves. After first, strongly admonishing them to STICK TOGETHER, I joined the other moms in sitting under the thing, neck craned up, making sure  their beloved heads appeared at regular intervals. I’m happy to report that they had a blast and no evildoers profited from the trip. My girls got practice in independent play that was (mostly) away from mommy’s eyes, and they did swell. They also were a solid team and watched each other’s backs while working for a common goal (of FUNFUFNFUNRUNRUNRUN), two things that will serve them well interacting in school and, later, in a workplace.

At the very least, they zonk out quickly after a theme park, which makes it totally worth it for me.