Before I had children, I paid little attention to playgrounds. To me, they were sad little urban prisons for children, full of noise and dirt; desperately boring.
To some extent they are still exactly the same; the only difference is now I have to endure them. The first thing my son wants to do on a Saturday morning is scoot to the local park, where he sits on a sheep-shaped bench licking a horrendously artificial, BRIGHT BLUE bubblegum ice cream. We have an argument in the shop, where I try to convince him to get something more NATURAL, like strawberry or lemon. In the end I give up. I suppose they’re all as bad,and it doesn’t really matter if he looks like he drank a bottle of ink for the rest of the day. We sit there watching the kids play, while his eyes move over the playground considering the day’s plan: first the climbing frame, then the swing, the slide and the rocking horses. I’m reminded of the pet pony I had as a child. My son doesn’t ride. He’s never been on a sledge or climbed a tree. When the ice cream is finished he runs along. For a while he moves from challenge to challenge, from dirty frame to greasy swing, and when he’s done he asks me if the farm I grew up on has penguins.
It was on one of these outings that I had the idea for this blog – I used the watching time for philosophical reflection. I was enjoying the sunshine and a caramel ice cream when something other than the hum of the nearby river made me look up. The ground shuddered, as under a herd of buffaloes. I barely had time to blink before the gates of the playground burst open and a crowd of school children stormed in. I was nearly knocked off my feet, while they spread around like ants, making mothers pick up their toddlers in panic. In seconds they were all over the swings, slides and seesaws, shouting and cheering while the little kids watched in wonder, their hands on their ears.
What was meant to be a blissful morning in a quiet area of London turned to chaos. The sharp squeaks of the swings on the point of breaking filled the air. Unsupervised ten year olds walked up and down the baby slides and tried to squeeze themselves into baby swings. I was reminded of the article I read in the paper about the teenager rescued by firemen from a baby swing. Why someone would want to trap themselves voluntarily into an uncomfortable piece of equipment, when there are perfectly advanced swings for older children in every playground, beats my imagination.
I lost my focus for a second and when I turned my head, a child was ordering my son to evacuate the rabbit burrow (even though he could see I was right there watching). I was just about to say something when I heard my four year old telling him NO – and it made me realise just how much a Londoner he really is. A city boy. Growing up in playgrounds gave him a knowledge of the world that I only learned much later in life.
So, I guess the question is, should playgrounds be age orientated? Should older kids be restricted from ‘younger’ playgrounds and viceversa? The council leaves this to the common sense of the parents who, in most cases, are absent – either at home, having lunch in the cafe at the other end of the park or absorbed in their smartphones.Every week, I find myself watching out for children who are ALONE in a playground. A month ago I found a two year old girl wandering by herself in an open playground while her mother was having a picnic a mile away; two weeks ago, I stopped a five year old from jumping from a ridiculously high frame because an older child had dared him to. These are the ‘ALONE’ children of the metropolis, cleaner and healthier than the Dickensian hawkers, but ALONE nonetheless. The parents will tell you that they ‘reach an age when they can go off and play’, though what that age is and how long they should be left unsupervised, is open to debate.
The downside of growing up on a farm is that it makes you see the world in a rather sarcastic light. To us, cities often seem like poor imitations of nature and all its wonders.After all, what clever artifice could replace the swings made of elastic apple branches, heavy with fragrant summer apples? What climbing frame is ever like the sleek trunks of hazelnuts?
At times, even wonderful London feels like a zoo where everyone is caged in their own tiny property,high on the illusion of freedom. Growing up, my playground was only limited by the boundaries of our land – but I rarely went that far. I remember a swing dangling above a steep little valley; swimming in the sea of gold crisp sweetcorn; the gate to my back garden opening to more fields and orchards, ending in the fabulous skyline. The only noises were the whistling of a train in the distance, the barking of a farm dog, the neighing of a horse.
My son must grow up in the wickedness of modern playgrounds. Maybe it’s part of growing up, a preparation for facing the diverse society, a lesson in war. I suppose it’s something you need to bear in exchange for city life. Isn’t London the place of all possibilities?
The problem with my idyllic childhood is that it taught me little about the real world. How could love prepare your for hate? How could the logic of a traditional family tell you anything about how illogical life really is?
My independence was the freedom of a lion cub running in a safari. It’s the city with its cubicles and fenced play areas where the real battles of the world unfold. Freedom is not a liberty, but a skill.
And maybe giving up freedom is true freedom after all.
As Carlos Castaneda said in his unforgettable ‘The Teachings of Don Juan’:
“In a world where death is the hunter, my friend, there is no time for regrets or doubts. There is only time for decisions.”