Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Something To Do

Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb. Brooks to wade, water lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets; and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of education.  ~Luther Burbank

I've mentioned the little park across the way from my apartment a few times on this blog. It's called Denny Park, Seattle's first park, a full city block that is mostly lawn, large shade trees, a few flower beds at its bulls-eye, and criss-crossed with paved walkways. On the western side are the offices of the city's parks and recreation department. It's all very simple, pleasant, and up until recently, mostly full of not much to do. Even the obligatory playground was that way, featuring a zip-line, a small merry-go-round, a collection of large boulders set in the ground, a slippery silver metal dome, and a large circle of pavers.

I have two dogs to walk, so I pass the playground regularly and have observed it at all hours of the day, throughout a couple of years. There are more children in our neighborhood than in the past, I suppose, but on any given day, the playground is bereft of young children, although it does often attract teenagers who play rowdily on the zip-line and young lovers who seem to like to lazily spin on the merry-go-round. Occasionally, however, there will be a few young children there, probably on their way to someplace else. The older kids are drawn to the zip-line, where they take turns pushing one another on it, faster each time, causing their bodies to swing out until they're almost parallel to the ground.

The younger children, the preschoolers, are more often attracted by the boulders, the silver dome, and the circle of pavers. Often, as I pass, I will hear parents urging their toddlers to do something, to try out the zip-line or the merry-go-round, but when left to their own devices, that's where they stay, feeling the smooth metal with their hands, jumping off the boulders, walking the shape of the circle. I've seen more than one child repeatedly try and fail to get fists-full of wood chips to stay on the dome, only to succeed when they try it on the boulder, a phenomenon they then test with their whole bodies by trying to climb on first one, then the other. Sometimes they skip or gallop or run around the paver circle, or pick the little daisies growing up through the cracks. Often, I notice, they find the boulders a nice place to sit while talking to their friends or to just look up into the branches that canopy this oasis in the midst of traffic congestion.

Typically, during our final parent education session of the school year, we'll go around our circle of parents as each of us share our memories of summer. Almost to a person, we recall "mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs . . ." In my 12 years of sitting in these meetings, I don't remember anyone talking of slides or climbers or even playgrounds.

Our neighborhood, once a sort of no-man's-land on the edge of downtown, on the wrong side of Aurora Avenue, best known as a place to pass through on the way to the freeway, has in recent years become a place to live and work. Some well-intended person at the parks and rec department took a look at those boulders, that silver dome, and the circle of pavers, had the idea that with all the new people, including children, moving to our neighborhood, it was time that Denny Park included something for the kids to do. So they've removed the boulders and dome, while keeping, for the time being, the pavers, and replaced them with a brightly colored climber, complete with ladders and slides.

It "opened" without fanfare a couple weeks ago and I have noticed more kids there than in past Junes, their strollers lined up along the sidewalk, parents, I guess, having brought them there because now there is something to do. I've yet to see a child on the new climber except for one very young boy who was placed up there by an adult and who then proceeded to cry until he was lifted back down. I watched one girl balance her way along a nearby rock wall. I've seen others picking up fists-full of wood chips and throw them into the air. Children still run around the circle of pavers, but mostly they seem to be almost intentionally staying away from the climber, opting instead to explore the lawns, the leaves, the helicopter pods of maple seeds, and the boles of the old trees, the best part of education even here in the middle of the city.

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