Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"They Ruined It"

When our daughter Josephine was three, the cooperative preschool we attended was temporarily housed in a pubic school building in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle, which was just across the street from the Wallingford Playfield, which in turn made it one of our go-to stops after school.

One corner was dedicated to a wading pool (empty for most of the year), some swings as I recall, and a massive, asphalt covered mound upon which the Parks & Rec Department had erected a one-of-a-kind construction featuring walkways, stairs, and a pair of massive tunnel slides. This play area was ringed with trees and shrubberies which is where Josephine typically played with her friends after a few minutes of going up and down the slides.

Those yellow dots are the kids playing in the landscaping rather than on the "proper" playground.

At one point the playground was closed for several months as the play-area was being rebuilt. The goal was a safer (e.g., less asphalt) and more aesthetically pleasing place. In the meantime, the school found it's permanent location north of Wallingford, so it wasn't part of our regular circuit any longer, but we eagerly awaited the re-grand opening nevertheless, having circled the big day on our calendar.

I'll never forget how my now four-year-old Josephine stopped at the fence for a moment in stunned silence before remarking, "They ruined it." At the time I disagreed, but I now know exactly what she meant. They had replaced this quirky, one-of-a-kind place with flashy out-of-the-box equipment, including a "climber" that filled the same footprint as the asphalt mound, but without the height, impressive slides, or perception of risk. The nail that stuck up had been hammered down.

As you can see, the climber, to the right in this photo, has been abandoned.

Josephine and her friends nevertheless tried it out for a few minutes before retreating into the trees and shrubberies which they had thankfully left, albeit now at the top of a tidy rockery. As I stood with some other parents on the sidelines we realized that all the kids were playing on the rocks and in the trees, while the only ones on the slides and swings were the adults who had brought the kids. This pattern held true for our next few visits as well and that playground eventually fell off of our rotation.

Last year, a parent, on her own dime, installed a type of climber on our school playground, a structure of pipes create by a parkour trainer. It was a big hit for a few months as the kids tested themselves on it, but then that corner of the space fell fallow. When we started this new school year, the structure again received attention for a couple months, but has since become a relative dead zone. That's the problem with these sorts of things: yes, children are attracted to them at first, but they usually only enjoy them until they've mastered them, until they've played the risk out of them, then they're done. This is why I have no problem with them being installed on "destination" playgrounds because most children are only there occasionally, and then for only an hour or so, but I'm not a fan of them on schoolyards. Our community has agreed with me. Next week we are are removing our parkour climber and replacing it with something else that I expect will be used every day because it will be more open ended.

A couple weeks ago, our 4-5's class took a trip into Chinatown to visit the Wing Luke museum, then popped over to a nearby pocket playground. There was a cool dragon sculpture on which the kids could clamber, a small sand box, and a standard issue climber. The kids swarmed the equipment for the first few minutes, but before long, they were all climbing the rockery and playing in the landscaping. Climbers come and go, but the newness never wears off terrain featuring rocks, sticks and plants.

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