... essays

rand's ramblings on this and that


Oh, For an Old Fashioned Playground

My friend Gil and I headed out to the movies last night --  Christmas night, the biggest movie night of the year.  We drove around to each cineplex, each with an offering of films not unlike the last and finally settled on a film that billed itself as a "horror-comedy", "An American Werewolf in Paris".

Yes, it was indeed light family entertainment:  the Music of Nine Inch Nails and several other current metal bands I had never heard of (yes, I stopped listening to the radio several years ago) mixed with a healthy dose of Generation X smugness, bungee cord jumping, syringes, and, a strange mix of Herschell Gordon Lewis goriness and attempts at Anne Ryce dark mystical eroticism.

Needless to say, the film didn't work.  I found myself during the film, amongst all of the spattering gore and thundering, teeth chattering sound effects, thinking about a simple playground Gil and I passed on the way to the theater.  There it was in the late evening fog, abandoned, dimly-lit, with a light mist covering the slides, playhouses, and silent, still swings.  It was located right at an intersection next to some religious day-care center and, quite honestly, since I've never had kids and never intended to, I just hadn't noticed the playground before.

But, there was something wrong with this particular playground that I kept mulling over throughout the evening and into the next day as I went my rounds of Boxing Day.   (Which, by the way, I could never figure out since Mike Tyson doesn't ever seem to be doing anything on a special holiday set aside each year for the day after Christmas).  Have you really looked at a children's playground lately?

Playgrounds look very different from the ones that were around when I was growing up.  They always seem crowded by all manner of boxes, slides, see saws, and Goddess-only-knows what type of device -- not only are the spaces smaller (afterall, real estate is valuable these days), but they're always painted in these bright primary colors of red, blue, yellow, and green.

Perhaps "painted" isn't the right word -- "laminated" is more accurate.  Not only are there more devices for fun in your typical children's playground these days, they're made of strange combinations of man-made plastics or fiberboards.  They're soft, they don't rust, they have rounded corners.  There's no lead-based paints -- everything is safe, right down to the smallest, most inconspicuous harmless little yellow plastic-covered bolt.

There's no space anymore.  The careful arrangement of the playground resembles the traffic flow control at Disneyland, scurring one young screaming child from one activity to another.  Don't even think about getting in a fight in playgrounds these days -- there's just no room between the post-modern plastic play sculptures to get a good crowd together and gawk.  Don't even think about stickball -- sticks (and trees for that matter) are verboten in the chain-link surrounded wonders of today's child psychology and legal liability limitation heaven.

I survived playgrounds when I was growing up.  I fell off rickety swings made of hard metal chains that could pinch and tear if you held them just right, sitting on top of a too-often used and splintery wooden seats.  I slide down slick hard metal slides that slightly bent and crinkled depending on the weight and thrust of the occupant.  I learned to avoid certain rusty or bent metal spots on the way down the slide.  I climbed up wood and metal ladders with missing rungs.  I played softball and kickball with real honest to goodness hard balls and bats.  I scratched and fought and kicked!  I gave crowds of kids something to talk about for years as they gathered in the wide open spaces of the free and open playground!  Dammit, I survived that playground and lived to tell about it!

But, that's a world gone now.  We have the Religious Reich to thank for our current fascination with protecting children.  First, they went after abortion, that first stumbling block in natural selection.  Now, they cuddle, coo, chant, "Ain't that so _sweet", as they make the world a safe place for _every_ child, _every_ where.  It's "I'm OK, You're OK" for the Barney and Soccer Mom generation.  Day care centers and schools, afraid of getting sued and in the interest of "protecting children", have created a stale haven where all playground look the same -- barren gardens of crowded structures that would make the Bauhaus blush; controlled environments for learning, not exploring -- my God, you couldn't hurt yourself in one of these things if you wanted to!

Yes, a few of us suffered busted knees, concussions, bloody noses -- heck, there was even a pretty serious injury now and then.  (If you were really lucky, you might even get to see someone hang themselves in a tree!)  We created a generation of "protected" children that has never known the real rough and tumble, bloody, gory, body beautiful side of childhood.  Today, as young adults, they seek digital computerized simulations of violence in films and Nintendo cartridges.   They glorify in tattooing and piercing every known part of their body.  They jump off high bridges with bungee cords or terroize quiet suburban neighborhoods on skateboards.   They hide in some placenta-like shell of baggy clothes even as young adults in a kind of protracted unfinished childhood, anguishly screaming "Mommy dressed me!"  Some of them make films like "American Werewolf in Paris".   Stripped of the chance to create rape and pillage themselves, they simply buy mayhem and chaos.

Perhaps a few playground concussions aren't such a bad thing.  I think back to some of the kids I knew that didn't survive the playground and, believe me, they didn't deserve to.  Now, the only way to ensure that Mother Nature's grand process of natural selection takes place is to carefully aim your automoble at the nearest formless lump of baggy clothes and pray you score a hit.  Too bad I didn't have my truck on the set of "American Werewolf in Paris".  We all, as a society and a gene pool, would be the better off for it.


Randy A. Riddle is an independent filmmaker in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  As a child, he once required stitches on the back of his head after playing golf with a cousin.

(c) 26.December.1998