Old School Playgrounds: Where Did the Fun Go? January 06 2011

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine and I took our toddlers to a "soft playroom" which is exactly what it sounds like -- a room where the mats, big blocks, slides, walls, EVERYTHING is cushiony soft. Like those Charmin bears. It's a place where you can let Toddler go wild, let them thrash and throw themselves around and not have to worry about them bumping their heads or breaking a bone in a fall. The whole time we were there I couldn't shake the image in my head of those rooms they keep people with straight-jackets in the asylum. I wanted to thrash myself around.

Other than the overt safeness of it all, the other thing I noticed was that parents outnumbered children. Or even if they didn't, they seemed like they did because they're bigger and they take up too much room in a place like that. I was so glad when the toddler K decided she didn't like the plastic ball pit area. Five parents were just sitting around soaking their feet in plastic balls, as if it needed more funk smell, while one child played in there. I'm not exactly the chat-em-up-with-random-parents-I-don't-know kind of mama (versus the husband, whom I call The Platicator). Not much into the playdates, either.

There was LOTS of hovering going on. LOTS. Me included, mostly because what kind of a parent would I be if I let her roam freely while I sat on the sidelines and read a magazine or did my nails or Facebooked-away on my iPhone? Uh, I'd have the mindset of an '80s or '70s or '60s or anything before that kind of parent. Actually, if that were really the case I probably would've been no where in sight or outside having a smoke or something '60s-ish.

In defense of myself, I sort of had an excuse to hover. The toddler is 17 months, and there were other kids in there who were like 4-years old. She's still a little on the babosita side, so I have to guide her. But soon as she's independent playerette, vamonos, you're on your own kiddo. At least that's what I hope.

It'll probably be okay because we're ensconced by safety, right?

Let me digress a little ... I'm always lamenting playgrounds of the past. We live right next to a park, and there's a street sign right by our house with a see saw on it, which means a hell yeah! playground. But the toddler will never know what it means because THERE IS NO SEE SAW HERE. Know where it is? Yeah, in the '80s, with all the other McDonald's and Burger King playground equipment. And along with super tall metal slides that burn the backs of your legs. Merry-go-rounds that spin so fast it makes you puke and stumble off it drunk on exhilaration. Monkey bars.

No, what's in our playground is one of those standard yellow and blue all-in-one playground pieces and a modern jungle gym that is cool, but safe, of course. And cushiony rubberized flooring everywhere!

It's not that this is bad playground equipment. It's nice-looking. And safety is important. But I don't think any of this stuff gets a kids (5 and up, I mean) heart pumping with adrenaline the way that little merry-go-round got ours. Maybe that's why they prefer to stay glued to a Nintendo DS? I'm not advocating we put high beams on the playground and let the kids leap off them into glass shards, but there's got to be a mid-point between old school playgrounds and soft playrooms, right?

I have three brothers, and none of us ever broke any bones growing up. And we played outside a ton WITHOUT parent supervision. And rode bikes without helmets. And we never wore sun block and got super dark by the end of summer. Of course, my little brother did take a bad fall from the top of the monkey bars in preschool and busted his face going down, until he hit the hard dirt floor. The teachers hadn't noticed until my mom got there to pick him up. And, the worst play accident to happen to me was when I was around 7, and I came up behind my older brother as he was practicing his Little League baseball swings with an aluminum Louiseville slugger bat. He didn't notice me and hit me right across the forehead. I fell flat on my feet, got a huge orange-sized bump on my head that receded to a little knot that I still have today. My parents didn't even take me to the doctor. I probably would have taken my child to get an MRI because that's how parents roll these days. That's how we roll, in a world of soft playrooms.