Guest Blog: What's Your Playground Memory?
Recently, on a shimmery summer day, a group of more than a dozen silver-haired people gathered at the fire station in my minuscule hometown of Freeville, NY (pop, 505). Except for my sister and me (we both still live here), all had traveled from well out of town – mainly from Florida, where everyone who leaves our harsh Upstate NY climate tends to land.
We were a disparate group of mainly-retired folk from many different fields, but we shared something very important: We had all spent our childhoods in this pastoral but slightly worn-down village, which stretches along a quiet Main Street flanked by clapboard houses. The old sidewalks are heaved up in spots by the roots of the maple trees that line the street.
Over shared casseroles and salads in the firehouse, no one really talked about their professions, or their children, or the pressing current events of the day. Instead, we peeled back the calendar, year over year, and recalled – with clarity and unabashed joy – our time as children, playing together.
We are lucky to have a little school smack in the center of the village, which sports a wide-open field, a playground, and a wooded area beyond. Memory after memory bubbled to the surface, as we recalled the abandon of our youth when we felt safe enough to play dangerously. In those days, our playground equipment consisted of a bent metal “jungle gym;” a squeaky metal swing set whose rubber seats contracted to leave telltale suction marks on our thighs; and a solid, free-standing, silver-painted metal slide. In the winter, the slide was an ice-coated torpedo of doom. In summer, the aluminum slide sent sun-reflected laser beams into space. Sliding down it was a skin-singeing hell ride.
Our playground was anchored in black pavement which was dusted in cinders and gravel. I know this because I still have some of it embedded in my knees.
We made do, the way children must, and we made that playground our world. We invented games, and played endless variations of kickball, capture the flag and tag. We smashed and tackled one another. We clumped into groups and formed shaky alliances. We defended and double-crossed one another. Sometimes, one or more of us would limp home crying, with injuries or hurt feelings. Age-related drama would infect the group, and those younger of us would decide to steer clear of the older kids, who seemed (at times) so rough and unpredictable.
Sometimes, especially in the heat of the afternoon, we would retreat to the woods, testing our bravery among the towering pines. I can still feel the shaky dislocation (along with that ancient Hansel and Gretel fretting fear) when I had ventured so far into the woods that I could no longer see the playground through the trees. Time to turn back.
As a child, I tested myself frequently, and what I learned then about my limits holds true today: I am cautious. I am a scaredy-cat. I am a cry-baby.
Fifty years on, I still need to keep my modest horizon in sight. But, given these parameters, I still LOVE to play!
Along with healthy food and emotional support, play is a vital part of a child’s early development. When linguist Deborah Tannen wanted to decode our gender differences and distinctions, she hung out NOT with fellow Ph.Ds, but with playing pre-schoolers. Her work studies gender patterns which reveal themselves through the way young children communicate while they play. And these basic patterns (cooperation vs. competition) seem to persist through adulthood. Childhood play reveals so much.
But more important than what childhood play reveals to adults -- is what it reveals, and unlocks, in children: The freedom to imagine, to create, to remake, to model, to reshape, to reveal or conceal. The occasional value of strategy. The good feeling of using your muscles. The joy of yelling. The need to cooperate, or the unquenchable desire to resist! The courage to try, the powerful feeling of leading, and the superhero strength revealed in kindness.
“The Yard” is a “free range” play area on Governor’s Island in New York City. After parents sign a waiver, they release their children into the sort of untamed play experience that some of us remember from our childhoods. Kids hammer nails into found pieces of scrap wood. They turn tractor tires into forts. They build. They destroy. I love this concept; even though, like much of life in New York City, it somehow seems too special -- as if even its freedom is parent-prescribed and (also) lawyer-proof.
I didn’t need The Yard when I was a child. My childhood on a dairy farm on the edge of our village held enough hazards, mud, tractor tires, rusty nails, and two-by-fours for a lifetime. I needed, instead, the playground at our school, because that’s where the children were. We ruled over our little world, managing our triumphs and negotiating our petty cruelties. Everything I know about human relationships started with the lessons we children taught each other on the playground.
During my reunion with my childhood play-pals, we walked from the fire station to the village school to visit the playground of our youth. Surprisingly little has changed in the village over the last 50 years. Some of the same families (or their descendants) still occupy the houses along Main Street. We are fortunate to still have an active primary school occupying the lovely old brick schoolhouse. The large open field with its border of pine trees is unchanged.
But waiting there was a playful postscript: A beautiful new playground, designed and built by over 100 local volunteers over the course of a week. I was honored to be asked to “officially” open our new playground on a chilly fall day. Around 200 families gathered for our little ceremony. Dozens of children of all ages strained behind a large ribbon, chomping at the bit to explore this new and colorful terrain.
Most days, our new playground is crawling with children. They scamper across the drawbridge and climb into the playground’s tower. They leap from one level to the other and trip their way across the swinging balance beam. There is now a (non-heat blistering) steep slide, as well as corkscrew and tunnel slides. Children glide and soar over the scene from the new double swings (including one that is wheelchair-accessible).
Sometimes, when I can’t resist, I join in. I’m not there to impose my adulthood upon these playing children. I don’t judge, correct, suggest, or direct. I don’t insist that they be gentle, share, cooperate, or use their inside voices. I’m there to play. My favorite moments are when the younger kids gather way up high in the colorful structure to turn a large steering wheel at the prow in our imaginary pirate ship. I imagine they are steering the entire village out to open sea -- and off to further adventures.
Amy Dickinson is the author of the “Ask Amy” advice column. She has written two memoirs: “The Mighty Queens of Freeville,” and “Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things,” both available in paperback.
Photo: The author officially opening the new community-built playground in her hometown.