I Survived the Playground

Are today's playgrounds better, because they're safer? Or are they just more wussy?


Nothing guaranteed a trip to the emergency room faster than being a kid in the '60s and '70s. 

Some say it was a simpler time for children; you could play outside until dark, catch fireflies and ride a bike without a helmet. 

But I believe it was an era filled with danger and unbridled fun.  It could possibly kill you. 

Take the backyard play structure.  After years of being left out in snow, hail and rain, by summertime our swing set was a rusty contraption of frail aluminum with colorful, peeling paint.  And my parents never dreamed of anchoring it into concrete.  Its legs lifted two feet off the ground when we used the swings.  A death trap in disguise.  You needed a tetanus shot just to go near it. 

Old-fashioned playground equipment, composed of nails, old tractor tires, heavy chains, and arsenic paint promised skull fractures and lacerations. By comparison, todays are made of plastic and soft surfaces, and are well maintained and eco-conscious.  Sissy stuff. 

Driving by the local park, crawling with kids, I reminisced with my own children, seat-belted in the back. 

Pointing out the window, I said, “See that swing set? During my time, the playground meant hours of unlimited, unsupervised playtime.  If you weren’t kicked in the head, you weren’t at recess.”

Good times.

At home, I pulled out old family movies for my son and daughter.  They hadn’t heard of a glider and had no idea that it was yesterday’s killing machine.

“What’s a glider?” they asked, plopping on the sofa.

“It’s a swing with two benches that face each other.  You pick up a lot of speed and could knock someone right off their feet if they weren’t watching.  Pop in the old movies and let me show you what I mean,” I said.

In the '60s, my dad had been one of the original owners of a Super-8 movie camera.  He collected hours of my childhood, first steps, Easter egg hunts, and birthdays.  But the moment I remembered the most, I called “Lucky to Be Alive.” 

The scene began to run scratchy and fuzzy across the screen as I said, “Hey guys, here it comes.”

Mesmerized, we stared at my three-year-old self walking across my grandmother’s backyard picking daisies, inching close to the glider.  My cousins had rivers of dirt and sweat dripping down their faces.  They were laughing and swinging on the glider with the enthusiasm of a circus act.    My dad, behind the camera, never stopped yelling, “Hey, Stacey, look this way.  Smile.”

After all those years, I gazed in awe.  Back and forth like a scary pendulum, the glider nearly missed slicing off the top of my head.  My father’s laughter cackled on the tape.  Why didn’t he put the camera down to save me? 

When the horror movie was over, my husband shared his own glider memory.

“Yeah, that was nothin’.  Kids in my neighborhood used to dig a hole under it.  Each of us took a turn underneath.  You were lucky to get out before your mom called you home for dinner.” 

Like a game of Whack-A-Mole.

And did I mention the old-fashioned slide? Towering, over 12 feet of shiny metal, it spiraled around and around, causing blisters, bruises and concussions. 

Imagine August in the Midwest, with 103-degree heat.  Wearing shorts assured a third-degree burn.  Sometimes we would add a little water to increase the speed, causing us to shoot down the barrel like a cannon ball, landing with a splat on asphalt or concrete.  

Today’s slides are not higher than six feet, a smooth-coated plastic surface with side rails, allowing children the luxury of a gentle descent with a cushioned landing.  Wimps.

At the worst, kids today end up with a skinned knee on the play structure.  Thanks to the lawyers and insurance companies, a higher standard is maintained. 

Yesterday's play built character, made you tough. Survival of the fittest. A few more scars and trips to the hospital laced our childhood, but we were a generation of Baby Boomers who persevered. 

Now, the youth are afraid to try new things, the "bubble wrap" generation. Maybe it’s all because the playground turned too safe and boring. 


WHAT DO YOU THINK? Are today's playgrounds better because they're safer? Or do you think what we had "back in the day" was perfectly fine, and playgrounds today are just wussy? Tell us in the comments below.

Marc Parent July 16, 2012 at 03:21 PM
Nice read, lets finish up with a ggod game of Lawn Darts, and everyone in the back of my pick up truck for a ride to the ice cream shop. Life was better when we were able to decide what was good and not, too much government does not make people safer, fall off your bike, get a helmet. Walk off a cliff, sue the owner for a guard rail. People get the result of their own decisions, poor or otherwise. Now the laws make decisions for you. So much for the simpler times.
Stacey Gustafson July 16, 2012 at 10:04 PM
I like your light take on this. Remember clackers?* *They consisted of two plastic spheres suspended on string which were swung up and down so they banged against each other, making a clacking sound. Clackers are similar in appearance to the Argentinian weapons, bolas.


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