The lost opportunity of playground education

I recently visited one of the many neighborhood parks that we are fortunate to have in Morgan Hill. In fact the park near my home recently went through a playground renovation, having some of the latest and safest state of the art playground equipment installed.

As I watched  some of the parents attend to their kids on the various pieces of playground equipment, I couldn’t help but think how we have deprived our younger generation of some of the basic lessons of life that they would have gained on the playgrounds that existed a generation ago.  

Most of the playground apparatus that I grew up loving as a kid are now gone. There is no see-saw. No large slides of any significant length or speed. No spinning merry-go-rounds. In most cases, there isn’t even traditional tan-bark flooring.  And, while the children I saw playing, didn’t seem to mind, it occurred to me that they really had no basis of comparison.

Now, I understand that there have been significant advances in playground technology in the last 25 years, and I understand the goal of keeping our children as safe as possible. But, as I looked around, I had to wonder, how far have we gone and at what cost?

The spongy synthetic flooring certainly provides an improvement over the tan-bark of my youth. But, there will forever be generations who will not know what it’s like to have those little redwood slivers in the palms of your hands after taking a spill off the monkey bars.  And, yes, most of those are gone, too.   

But, what is most troubling about this situation is that most of these changes have come about because of the runaway litigation in our society.  The pole that used to extend off the side of the jungle gym so you could pretend you were the neighborhood firefighter is also gone and has been replaced by a metal spiral so that the child’s descent can be controlled in a slow circular, and I would say boring, motion.  And why?  Safety has something to do with it, and that is a laudable goal.  

But, what lessons are we cheating our children out of because a city council has to be worried, and legitimately so, about getting sued because some kid got a sore tush after sliding down the pole too fast. I believe you have missed an important lesson in life, both literally and metaphorically, if you haven’t had the close call of getting a shoe to the back of the head because you walked to close to a swing set that was in use.   

This cautiousness and willingness to jettison common sense always in preparation for the worst in people does not stop at the community playground’s edge.

My son was once banned from playing touch football at recess with his classmates – but it wasn’t for any disciplinary reason. Among the panoply of reasons we were given for the ban was that football was the only sport where you went after the player with the ball, and that it involved physical contact that might result in injury.  

These boys brought their own ball to school, developed their own teams and rules, used the honor system to enforce these rules and were doing nothing disruptive or unusually dangerous. But, because it involved running around and possibly falling down the activity was banned – in other words, being a kid. But, they didn’t want some child’s fall triggering a lawsuit. Forget the inherent lessons about teamwork or self-motivation that could have been encouraged here.  

My suggestion that, based on the principal’s criteria, they would have to ban all recess, a logical and common sense point, was not appreciated.  

Of course no one wants to see a child get injured, seriously or otherwise. But, at the same time, the world we send our children into is not cushioned for every fall. If you get rid of the slides, and the swings, and the cooperative lessons of the see-saw from a playground then what are you left with? The lessons are gone. Our children don’t have to learn to look out for themselves because we’ve removed as much risk as possible.

To be sure, the children I watched running around in that playground will never know the difference, and never know what they are missing.  And that may be the saddest result of all.

Author Jeff Nunes is an attorney at Rusconi, Foster & Thomas, APC in Morgan Hill. He is a graduate of Live Oak High School and lives in Morgan Hill with his wife and two children.

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