The rich, vibrant primary colors and the allure of the tube slides make today’s playgrounds appear at first glance like jungle gym paradises. But run over to one, climb aboard via one of the two or three meager challenges, drop through the tube slide and you’ve virtually exhausted the potential of the entire structure! Although attractive, today’s playground structures are becoming less and less challenging and are catering to younger and younger children.
Many of these attractive plastic structures now come equipped with signs that declare, “This playground structure is intended for use by children 12 and under.” The structures seem to be purposely built to keep adolescents, challenge, daring feats and any possibility of injury out of the park. Although minimizing injury is a laudable intent, the anesthetizing manner in which recent playground equipment is designed prevents any real physical challenge and limits the way the actual structure can be used. If you climb aboard, it doesn’t take long to realize that essentially the entire structure is just a long platform with a set of steps and a few simple one-use only ways of getting on and off. The structures are built to prevent high jumping, challenging climbing, flipping or twirling over bars, and falls. If there is a swing set on the playground, the swings are often equipped with short chains that prevent aerial stunts such as “under dogs” and gravity-defying jumps.
Our natural Earth is the best playground for children of all ages- There are few challenges more exhilarating than climbing a leviathan tree, launching ones self off the edge of a rocky cliff and splashing into the ocean below, scaling a mountainous glacial boulder, running through a wooded trail or riding a gushing mountain stream across the flat, slippery rocks of a gorge. Nature as a playground is open-ended and allows limitless possibilities of physical challenge, including the possibility of getting injured. I believe that children who play in nature develop a strong sense of body awareness, groundedness, mindfulness, awareness and innate knowledge of how their bodies move in time and space.
However, for children in the city, children confined to school or children who do not otherwise have access to a natural space, playgrounds can offer a place of immediate respite, fun and physical activity. Even for children who do have regular access to natural spaces, playgrounds can be a fun source of quick physical challenge when out in the community, visiting friends, on camping trips or taking a break while parents run errands. Playgrounds also offer great places to hold homeschool groups, clubs and other gatherings of children and families.
Playgrounds originated in the late 1800’s as a method of exerting social control over the immigrant and lower class children roaming the city streets. Like public schools, playgrounds provided a structured, rule-based environment designed to control and shape children’s behavior and activities and provide “socialization” that was in line with adult expectations. The positive aspects of playgrounds are that playgrounds provided children with physical activity, promoting better health. Another positive aspect is that playgrounds were designed in the early years to attract older children, too.
Playgrounds have changed a great deal since their origins, starting with sand boxes and eventually adding swing sets, slides, see-saws, teeter-totters, spring ride-ons, horse-shaped swings, merry-go-rounds, basketball hoops, jungle gyms, monkey bars, climbing domes and in the mid 80’s, tire structures. The most drastic changes seem to have occurred in the mid-1990’s when the steel metal playgrounds that once functioned as stunt havens for children ages five to 18 were quickly replaced with the now ubiquitous plastic pre-fabbed playground kits fit for children ages 2-8. These new plastic kits, which create an instant draw mainly due to their colorful slides, are as unsatisfying to older children as an electronic toy- They offer novelty and instant gratification, but almost as instantly they lead to boredom unless used instead as a fortress for hide-and-seek.
The steel playground structures of the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s allowed for dangerous feats that much of my son’s generation has not discovered. I will never forget the thrilling shot of fear of locking my feet around the top rungs of a seven foot tall steel jungle gym, leaning backwards until I was hanging upside down, my head rushing with exhilaration, reaching my arms back until my hands grasped the cold metal bar below my head, and then kicking off, flipping and landing on my feet! That was almost as exciting as the sets of lightening fast twirls we would do around a metal bar: I recall I would sit perched on a bar a little wider than my body, my forearms wrapped under the bar. My toes, pointed knock-kneed out to the sides, gripped the poles running down the sides of the bar. When we would release our toes, we would plunge head first towards the ground, sometimes over seven feet off the ground, and then the sudden catch of our inner elbows would launch us into a spin around the bar. Some children could manage five spins in a row or more before their toes would frantically jut out, feeling for the security of the poles. We would do this until the insides of our elbows were red and bruised and we were gasping for breath from the spins.
As a youth I remember gracefully flying high through the air on swings with chains that seemed to climb up as high as the sky; being launched skyward on see-saws, seeing my own laughing face reflected in the joyful face of a laughing friend dropping down on the opposite side– then just as fast I’m being dropped to the earth as my friend hurtles up and touches the sky… I remember the long ascent to the top of the metal slide, flipping over the bar and shooting down the hot metal that would burn my legs in the summer sun. I recall the dexterity, agility, power and strength required on the high climbing domes, knowing one wrong move could mean a fall… I remember laying on my stomach, hanging off the top of the monkey bars, reaching my hands underneath, flipping over and landing on my feet. I remember being whipped off the merry-go-round and bouncing off of the tire structures. I remember all of these challenging, elating stunts my friends, sister, cousin and I used to do together on playground equipment that has since been torn up, carted away and replaced with glorified platforms challenging to no one past the age of eight.
At age 10 I broke my ankle riding with two other children on a sled launched by two other children off of the high metal slide, and my sister once disclosed that she fell from the top of a jungle gym while doing that twirling, spinning stunt. Injuries as well as schools, towns and businesses fearing lawsuits, are probably the biggest reasons for the demise of the retro playground. Allowing children to approach challenges when they are ready, without adults expressing fear or “helping” but with adults encouraging and spotting, can minimize injuries. Removing places and opportunities for adolescents to obviously congregate seems to be another insidious goal of the new toddler-esque playground kits, of course making it more likely that bored youth will have to find less desirable things to do in the community. Creating playgrounds with multiple levels of challenge for all ages is far more inclusive than giving adolescents the message that they are not wanted at playgrounds.
Thankfully, my son and I are within driving distance of a large wooden obstacle course playground and a large rope structure playground where children of all ages can have fun and create group challenges. However, the steel and tire playgrounds of my generation are a rare find. When my son and I are driving and we see a “retro” playground, we make an effort to stop. My son is well aware that at anytime, these few remaining gems that still accommodate big kids could be excavated and replaced with something more fit for his toddler cousin.