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The Ban on Fun

I just read a great piece at salon.com about how un-fun playgrounds have become. 

I know about this firsthand.  When I had my preschool, I bought a house with a great big back yard.  It had three huge apple trees, a horse chestnut tree, and lots of grass.  We had our driveway paver add an asphalt pad in back, and eventually I ran across beautiful used steel preschool bikes, about eight different kinds, and bought them.  They last forever. 

We built a sandbox, cadged a monkeybar set that was about 12 x 12 x 12, with one of those little towers on the top, from a school that was getting rid of it, and built a wooden fort.  We had a great swingset, a teeter-totter, lots of balls large and small to kick around or balance on, and all manner of playground toys.  I can’t even remember all of the possibilities.  No one ever got hurt.  Kids (these were 18 months – 5 years) have a very tight grip.  At one point, my partner got a trampoline.  I must admit that the trampoline bothered me, but no one ever got hurt.  And it should go without saying that we had a great child-adult ratio at all times to make double-sure that no one got into a dangerous situation. 

Over the years, the fun of the playground vanished. 

Some things were obvious, for safety.  We had wood chips under structures, which were within the regulations at first, but then they had to be replaced with really expensive rubbery stuff.  That’s fine.  The sandbox had to go–I can’t begin to tell you how much time the kids spent there, and how much they learned about volume and designing cities and roads, or learning about viscocity, or geometric-solid shapes, but sand is a good transmitter of impetigo, a common staph infection, so that made sense.  I imagine that we were the only preschool in town that washed down all our shelves and equipment with bleach water once a week; that definitely was not required and a cheap and easy way to cut down on infections.   I suppose that, once we were aware of it, we could have wet down the sand box every evening with a weak bleach solution. 

But then, the swings were banned.  My goodness, a child might walk in front of a child who was swinging and get beaned.  Um, excuse me.  That might happen in an environment that slacked off in having enough adults around when no one was looking, but why not cite those preschools and let the kids in mine learn about motion and have fun at the same time?  Monkeybars–concussion material.  Teeter-totter?  You can imagine! 

I objected when the health department demanded that I cut down the horse chestnut tree.  Oh, and the apple trees too.  Raking up the burrs from the horse chestnut was something the kids enjoyed, and ditto the apples, the ones we didn’t use for applesauce in a crock pot, but we also had yard people to take care of it and I had not, in twenty years, encountered a horse chestnut burr injury/infection.   Sure, the fallen apples might attract wasps or bees, but we didn’t want the kids to get stung, so we took care of that.  And east Tennessee is hot in the summer.  The trees gave us some nice, cool shade.  Iused to stand out in my complex, intensely green, cool, shady playground of a summer morning while the kids shouted, ran, climbed, played, and quietly rejoice.

But then  it went.  And went, and went.  An interesting, challenging environment vanished, piece by piece. 

I rent my school to another preschool now, and when I visit, I am nonplussed.  The lovely steel bikes are stored under the house, and there aren’t even any substitute vehicles (hot wheel trikes were always easy to find, but the kids wore them down to the nub in about three weeks).  There are no climbing structures.  I may be wrong, but I think the children are discouraged from running very much.  Under the house, I found the beautifully designed toddler structure we had comissioned from a cabinetmaker, lying in pieces.  Why?  The railings were properly spaced so as not to catch heads, and it was only about four feet high.  Nevertheless, they might fall. 

When I was a kid, those big playgrounds were thrilling.  We’d take waxed paper to the highest, scariest slides in town–metal, of course–and sit on the paper to make the slide more slick and fast.  We’d take turns pulling the merry-go-round–that big flat round platform with metal handles bolted to it–and hop on when we got it going fast.   The most dangerous place, I suppose, was not even a playground.  It was a car junkyard near my grandfather’s ten acres on Bear Creek outside of Miamisburg, Ohio.  We weren’t allowed to go over there, so of course we did, at any opportunity.  Those old, smashed cars, from the fifties and late forties, fascinated me.  I’d wonder what happened.  Did the people die? What music had those old radios played?  How did they shift those gears?  We also had a huge pile of bricks–thousands–at the end of the apple orchard, left over from building the house, which was the kingdom of the kids.  We built castles and thrones.  You had to plan out the foundation, number of bricks to use, and so on.  Good thinking stuff.  Then another bunch of cousins would come and tear it down and build something else. 

All gone.

Here’s a link to the article:  http://www.salon.com/life/feature/2010/05/17/war_on_childrens_playgrounds?source=newsletter

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1 Pam { 05.19.10 at 11:37 AM }

I’m so glad I grew up in an era when parents assumed you’d figure out how not to kill yourself when roaming, and if anything started to bleed badly, just come home for a band-aid and a quick yelling at.

2 Kathleen Goonan { 06.01.10 at 2:33 PM }

Well, now that I have more time to play with WordPress, I see that this may not have posted, earlier.

People seem to have much more fear now, in general, than when I was growing up, about their children, so they have less free time in which to mess around and learn for themselves. Perhaps because we live amongst more strangers than when my parents grew up in relatively small towns, but I’m sure there are lots and lots of factors. Or maybe our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were always worried, but were able to more easily balance the the tricky risk vs experience ratio.

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