Hi Lia - but there's a really big difference between soft play centres and playgrounds, where most people don't get into anything more than a bit of polite chat about the weather, and baby groups, where people often go specifically to make friends and get support. I really think you'd do better to narrow it down to one or the other - see, I am bossy.
re. play areas, to answer your original question, I think there's definitely some reciprocity, as there is in other public spaces where there are lots of parents. I'd alert you if I saw your DC fall over and you hadn't noticed, just as someone would stop a small child they saw wandering on their own in a campsite or train station - and probably parents are more likely to do this than non-parents. However, people are held back I think sometimes by fear of a bad reaction - I wouldn't touch or pick up an unknown child who had fallen over and hurt themselves in case their carer reacted badly. (MN is full of 'how dare they touch my child' type outrage)
But I don't think this reciprocity is ever formalised/made overt (in terms of asking for favours) unless people have formed a relationship over a period of weeks or months. So I'm not surprised if a mum from school asks me to watch her DC playing on the park while she pops to the village shop for 5 minutes. I'd be very surprised (and uncomfortable) if someone I'd been chatting to for 10 minutes asked me the same thing.
I've been away on holidays and only now saw your input. Dotty2 I dont think you come across as bossy I probably was not clear enough. It is not limited to play areas. As someone above mentioned, I am also interested in outdoor playgrounds, soft play centres, baby groups.
Well, I think reciprocity is often evident in the behaviour we expect from our children in play areas - so my DC gets off the swing so that your DC can have a turn, but then the unspoken expectation is that your DC won't then hog it all afternoon, but will get off it for someone else to have a turn. In fact, I have often mused on how the behaviour we expect from children in play areas is more altruistic than that we expect from adults - after all, you don't expect someone to get up in a pub and say 'here, I've had this table for ages, you have it now'.
But, if you don't mind me saying so, I think your questions are a little muddled and you might do well to make them more specific/narrower. Are you interested in parents exchanging favours with other parents (in general), or specific playground norms of behaviour? Is it the children's behaviour (as shaped by the adults), or the adults' own? If you're interested in the general exchange of advice/favours/support that goes on between parents, I (personally) don't feel that playground relationships are a particularly rich source. I've got on to general chatting terms with people I've met in playgrounds, but have never moved on from there to having a coffee and then progressing to the kinds of relationships you are focusing on. I think parent and toddler groups etc would be a much better focus for this kind of study.
(Sorry - that's probably very bossy. I am currently finishing my PhD and engaged in trying to rearticulate my research questions and it seems to be making me ultra-picky!)
I am a regular user of Mumsnet and as I need input from other parents, I thought that this would be a good way to get your views. I am completing a Masters in Anthropology and trying to do some research about Reciprocity (responding to a positive action with another positive action, rewarding kind actions, small favours can produce a sense of obligation to a larger (or not) return favours). I am focusing on Play areas and I wonder if you have any stories that could help me. For example, have any of you have made friends with other parents/ carers through taking your little ones to play at the same play area? Even if these relationships dont spill outside the paly areas, is there any aspect of reciprocity while in the pay area? Do adults look for each others children? Do adults exchange advice? Please ladies, any input would be appreciated!!!