Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Work Hard, Play Safely

A new play set has been erected in our community.  The old one was made of prehistoric wood and used car tires, and had contributed too many splinters and not inspired enough imaginative fun to survive any longer in the world of competitive home subdivisions.  It was worn out. 
I took my youngest to visit it this weekend.  I sat like a retiree on a nearby shaded bench and read a book while she test drove the amenities.  The parents who obviously started their families at a younger age than me stood and followed their charges, patiently explaining to the kids the correct way to play.   I was worn out.
The neighborhood kids were swarming like bees on a can of Coke.  They would buzz around the plastic and metal structure, settle briefly on one spot before quickly and randomly buzzing to another section.  They had to experience it all at least once.  They ignored their parents, not out of disrespect.  The parents simply didn’t exist in their field of awareness.  The parents kept their distance, not wanting to be stung by a hyper-excited toddler.

A new play set in my day would have consisted of 3 swings and a free standing set of monkey bars.  If it was an amusement park, it would have included a slide and a merry-go-round.    Any accidental falls would be cushioned by concrete, asphalt, or rock hardened earth.  It’s no wonder my generation coined the phrase “work hard, play hard.”  We played hard on hard surfaces. 
“Play set” is too pedestrian a name for this new jungle gym.  In fairness, this new addition to the neighborhood is so much more than a play set.  Play set does not do it justice.  The primary colors were chosen by Einstein to ignite the firing of young cerebral synapses.  The climbing apparatus was designed to test gross motor development, and the built-in manipulatives were selected to challenge fine motor skills.  The feng shui was inspired by Dr. Spock, the technology by Mr. Spock.  The only safety feature not installed in this particular model was an air bag at the termination point of the circular dragon slide.  That’s probably only available on the Version 3.0 Turbo.

Safety was paramount, as much for the peace of mind of the parents as for legal compliance.  The mulch depth on a public play set facility is required by law to be 12 inches.  At such depth, little Johnny’s buttock will be uninjured by a fall from the dizzying height of 5 feet.  Why didn’t we think of that in 1973?  Have we experienced global gravity change since then?

The play sets of my day were not designed for safety.  They were not designed for learning, at least not positive learning.  Learning, if it happened at all, was of the negative variety.  We learned via skinned knees, broken bones, and calluses that bled.  Nothing taught a kid not to go down a slick metal slide backwards more than watching a friend suffer a massive head injury from trying it without a spotter.  Now THAT is going to leave a mark.

On this particular space age play set, I watch a boy of approximately 5 years of curiosity come halfway down the slide that doesn’t provide any speed or momentum, come to a complete stop in the middle, and disembark over the side, dropping like a precious egg onto a pillow of soft, triple screened mulch so clean you could eat off of it.  This kid learned nothing.  The adult designers of these play sets obviously learned something from their childhood experiences on the concrete.  Play can really hurt sometimes, and wouldn’t it be nice if we could disassociate pain from play.

I think the adult play set designers learned something else over the years of skinned knees and broken bones.  Play sets need to provide a feeling of safety and security to the helicopter parents hovering over their little ones as much as provide physical safety to the carefree kids. This set seemed to accomplish that. 

One more thing became apparent to me.  Kids will do irrational things on a play set, like stop halfway down the slide and climb over the side at their peril.  I hope these kids don’t leave here thinking that they can never get hurt.  That could really hurt them later on.

Work hard, but play safe.  That slogan just doesn’t carry the same power, does it?  That might be the real danger with this play set.

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