Monday, July 03, 2017

No "Please" Or "Thank You"

Perhaps it's unfair that we have wagons on our playground. They're indispensable childhood toys, of course, but not every landscape is built to accommodate them, and ours -- compact and densely populated, reflecting the city in which we're choosing to raise our kids -- is among them.

Essentially, there is one long, relatively impediment free slope that runs from the top of the hill to the bottom, but any deviation from that leads to an obstacle course of narrow gaps and ups and downs.

We're currently down to just one full-sized wagon. Our "new" wagon is still around, half buried in the sand pit, having given up the ghost a couple of years ago when the front wheels came off along with the pull handle, which is also still around the place. We're left with the classic little red Radio Flyer rust bucket that I played with when I was a boy, the one I festooned with a bumper sticker from a local Chevrolet dealership. That's right, the 50 year old wagon is still going strong, having served a family of three kids and all of their friends, followed by grandkids, and is now a decade into its life with us at Woodland Park, still fulfilling its destiny of hauling loads and offering rides.

Despite the incompatibility between our playground and wagons, children nevertheless attempt to maneuver ours around the place. I don't always spot it in use, but I'm forever finding it where it's been abandoned, usually with wheels caught on something, or halfway up a step. 

Last week I was sitting on a stump in the shade just watching kids, when a two-year-old found the wagon where I tend to park it when I "put it away." He wrestled it into position then took the pull handle that was turned back against the side of the wagon bed, which naturally caused the whole thing to fall on its side. It's a heavy vehicle, too heavy for a two-year-old to right on his own, but I have a policy of not helping kids unless they ask for it, so I just stayed where I was on my stump, watching. As he struggled, a team of bigger kids on their way to somewhere else raced past, but not before one of them paused to give the wagon the boost it needed. There was no "please" or "thank you" involved, just one kid helping another because a need and an ability were present in the same place at the same time.

The boy, however, was still left with the challenge of how to get the wagon going in the right direction. He started again with the handle, but slowly this time, stopping the moment he noticed the wheels lifting off the ground. He let go and tried again with the same results. After one more test, he went around to rear of the wagon and pushed. Our playground is covered in wood chips and that particular spot is thick with them, preventing the wheels from turning freely. He pushed with all his might, uphill. The wagon moved forward a few inches, but rolled back when he let go. He pushed again, then again, each time going no where. As he pushed for a fourth time, an older girl passing by with a watering can stopped to watch him. Without a word, she put her watering can in the bed of the wagon and used her superior physical strength to turn the wagon bed so that it was in line with the steering apparatus, then retrieved her watering can and went about her business.

The boy then took the wagon handle and began pulling it in a straight line toward where I sat on my stump in the shade. He was navigating through a narrow channel between a concrete slope and the raised beds of our playground garden. The rear wheels almost immediately got caught on a table we use for potting plants, upsetting the table and tangling the wagon. By now I was only a few feet away from him. He didn't appeal to me as I'd expected, but rather made a study of his situation, squatting down to get a closer look. As he considered his next move, another two-year-old came upon the scene who reflexively squatted beside him. They stayed there in stillness and silence for some time, not talking, just looking. The boy then rose and began to wrangle the table, which his fellow toddler took as an invitation and together they righted the table which simultaneously freed the wheel. There was no "please" or "thank you" exchanged.

Pull handle back in hand, the boy continued forward. By now he was pretty much right on top of me. In front of him was a line of stumps; to the left, a sharp concrete rise. He chose to turn right, to pass directly in front of me, but he cut the turn too close and a rear wheel once more got caught, this time on the corner of one of the raised garden beds. He pulled with all his might, but it wouldn't budge. He said something to me that I didn't understand. I replied, pointing at the rear wheel, "You're stuck." 

He dropped the pull handle to check it out. Grabbing the edge of the wagon bed he pulled it, hard, several times, finally wiggling the wheel free. Satisfied, he took the handle once more, pulling the wagon forward about a ten inches before deciding he would now attempt to take the turn between the raised beds and into the the midst of the garden itself. The wheel instantly got stuck again.

He struggled with this for a long time. Many children stopped to help without any "please" or "thank you." In the end, after a journey of 20 minutes and ten feet, that's where the wagon was abandoned.

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