Posted by Karen O'Hanlon
So what is going on with playgrounds these days? That’s basically all I want to know. Even a lot of the spiffy modern ones don’t seem to offer the kind of possibilities for fun and development that I remember as a child.
When I look back at the community playgrounds that I knew in the '50s and '60s, they weren’t necessarily all that remarkable looking. The swings and climbing bars were made of ugly steel pipe. Seesaws were made using straight wooden boards with indentations cut out near the ends for legs. And the merry-go-rounds were just flat metal disks, mounted to a center post, with a few arched bars on top. Most kids would sit in the middle while a few ran around the outside, pushing to get it spinning fast, before hopping up onto the edges for the best ride of all. For me, the greatest swings were the really tall ones, with their long metal chains and a half-circle strip of rubber that snugged up against my bottom and made me feel securely tucked-in. I could swing so high that I had a clear view of the tops of the trees. It made me feel like I was flying. The tall slides were great, too, although their metal sometimes got too hot in the burning mid-day sun. Even that was okay, though. I learned to test the metal before I got on, or use a piece of cloth to sit on before zooming down.
Why were these simple playground structures so enjoyable? It's not just because they were the only thing available. There was something more to them than that.
At least in part, it was for the same reason that I loved cardboard boxes. The materials were simple, but open with possibility. What the playground didn’t offer visually, my friends and I filled in with imagination. The tall swings became an airplane where my friends and I were the crew. (We pulled those planes out of countless near crashes!) We became actual monkeys on those monkey bars. We hung from them like the branches of high trees, contentedly swinging, perching, and twirling from bar to bar. Sometimes the merry-go-round transformed into a boat out on the ocean, caught in a whirling current. Or maybe it was a spaceship hurtling through the stars, the launchpad for whatever new adventure we could imagine around the playground.
Every piece of playground equipment, just like every cardboard box, offered endless opportunities for imaginative play. Nothing about them needed to be fancy. Yet in today’s world, the kinds of equipment I played on have been labeled far too dangerous for kids. This is a shame, and generally, I think playground safety concerns have been blown out of proportion. Now, I’d be the first to admit that as a kid I got my fair share of bumps, bruises, skinned knees, and splinters along the way. Yet I don’t remember a single broken arm or leg. (I do remember someone falling on the blacktop during a chase game and ending up with a severe sprain. Ironically, no play equipment was necessary for that injury!)
As an adult who became a teacher, I remember pieces of equipment vanishing one by one from the school playgrounds where I worked. The merry-go-round was the first to go. Then the slides disappeared. By then the seesaw was already long gone. The monkey bars lasted the longest, but the modern playground became devastatingly bare. For much of my career, all the kids had to play with during recess were a few balls, a handful of jump ropes, and each other. Without props to bolster their imaginations, kids fell into degraded games filled with competition over limited equipment. Their frustration was compounded by too many chasing games, often leading to pushing and name calling.
There’s always a certain amount of aggression that arises when you have a group of kids immersed in unstructured play—regardless of the environment—but I think it was less pronounced back when I was a kid. We were more interested in preserving the pretend games we had created, leveraging the equipment that was available, than in bickering with one another. The magic of our imaginations gave all of us something to work towards together.
And when I think about the loss of the old play equipment, it’s more than just the loss of imaginative stimulation that I lament. By taking away play equipment (and often not even replacing it with anything at all), kids are being denied some great developmental and problem solving opportunities.
For instance, why does a seesaw work beautifully sometimes and not at all other times? If two similarly sized kids wanted to ride the seesaw together, you were in business. But what if two kids were not the same size? Then you really had to think. Sometimes the littler kid could scoot more toward the end of their side of the seesaw, or the bigger kid might be able to slide in more to the center. Other times we would invite an extra small child to join the first small child. Then two little ones equalled the weight of one big one. We figured out the balancing problems in order to have more fun. (And again, this was not a source of constant, serious injury.)
Then there’s the merry-go-round, which taught a whole different set of skills. When little kids would negotiate with the older and bigger ones about who should push and who should sit in the middle, play on the merry-go-round became a socially interactive exercise. True, the older kids who pushed got the satisfaction of being in control but they also became responsible for making everyone’s ride more fun. It was an early leadership role, and they learned to feel pretty good about taking care of the smaller children. For the smaller kids, there was modeling involved. They got to see what it meant to be a bigger kid, experiencing both the joy of independence and important roles of responsibility.
On our playground, my friends and I were just having a ton of fun, not really conscious of the fact that we were also experimenting—learning math, science and social skills in the process. It’s hard to name any piece of modern playground equipment that fosters these same skills. As a teacher, I felt tasked with a whole lot more than just physical safety. We’re failing our kids when we don’t recognize that there’s more to playground time than mere physical movement. I can’t help thinking that we've sacrificed too much in the name of safety, without really recognizing everything we lost.