May 11, 2010
[ed: They past few months I was commissioned to explore a series of rabbit/fox/worm holes, collecting inter-dimensional tales along the way. Now that I have returned home, some typing is long overdue].
A few months ago I started wonder when and why children’s playgrounds have became so darn safe. Its no secret that litigation (both the fear and the reality) has slowly been transforming playgrounds into rubber rooms for decades.
In his analysis of Junk Playgrounds, Roy Koslovsky has advanced the argument that the activities children are immersed in are models of the kinds of citizens we want them to become. (see Adventure Playground and Postwar Reconstructions in Designing Modern Childhoods). What might children learn from (supervised) danger and what are they missing when we they are excessively insulated and protected?
Without exposure to some risk, how are children supposed to learn to evaluate and take chances, the consequences of their actions, and the Golden Rule – what goes around comes around? If we don’t provide them with the space to develop and exert their agency and will, are these lessons lost? Can they be adequately taught through simulation?
Against this backdrop, I followed up a lead from a reliable informant (my Dad) and began visiting local playgrounds. I first ventured out on a snow day back in February. The playgrounds were appropriately locked down that day, since apparently the last place we want kids playing in the snow is under controlled supervision. But children weren’t the only thing missing form the playgrounds… I also noticed something else – or, more accurately – didn’t notice something else. I visited half a dozen playgounds and I didn’t see a single See-Saw!
Since then I have been informally asking around and I am pretty sure the last public see saw on the island of Manhattan is in a park on 84th and Riverside. There are still a few See-Saws left in the South Bronx and the suburbs, but in NYC they are an endangered species.
This got me wondering – What do children learn from See-Saws? Without conducting any formal research, but after a few good conversations, I hypothesized this answer – On the physical plane: balance, gravity, and equilibrium. On the social plane: cooperation, friendship and trust. Heck, the see-saw is the only activity in the playground where kids are necessarily looking each other in the eyes. If you betray someone on the see saw, playground rules. You will learn that what goes around comes around even without the merry go round (those disappeared before my time – now that toy was dangerous). And if you don’t eventually learn your lesson on the See-Saw, you might find yourself without friends within a few years.
What kinds of effects might we expect from restricting children to hamster tubes which overlooking simulated danger? Perhaps none. Or, perhaps these attitudes are contributing to the fear, anxiety, restlessness and behavioral disorders being reported and diagnosed in children at alarming rates.
They came first for the merry go rounds, then they came for the see saws, soon they’ll come for the swings! If only we could figure out who the capital ‘T’ They are….