We were at Haney’s apple farm with friends on Sunday and it had gotten to the point where the apples were picked, the pies were eaten and the kids were high on sugar. It didn’t take them long to find the new play structure that popped up over the winter, a real doozy shaped like a barn complete with swings, slides, and climbing walls. As they bounced around and we watched them, it made me think back to our childhoods and all the fun we used to have at the park.
Back then, play structures were still called playgrounds and, as I watched the kids kick up woodchips as they ran around Sunday, it was for good reason. In all our hours at the park, we spent a lot of time on that ground, didn’t we? Either from getting whipped off the merry-go-round, falling off the jungle gym or landing hard on our tailbones off the slide. And that ground was hard, boy. Maybe, if we were lucky, it was sandy or even dusty. That seemed to help those crashes slightly. But usually, it was just … ground.
I had two influential playgrounds in my life: one at the park near my house that my best friend Kristin and I christened Piggy and Duck. The other was tantalizingly close to Robert Browning Elementary School. Not, let’s be clear, at my school, but in a public park that we could see, but not visit, every day at recess and got to go to about twice a year during gym class.
In a wildly creative turn, Piggy and Duck was named after a pig and a duck. They were metal sculptures that you could ride on because they had a saddle and they were affixed to the ground via a giant spring. So you’d sit on them and hold the handles that came out of either pig’s or duck’s head. Then you tried with all your might to “ride,” except the spring was either rusted or uncooperative because you could only get about an inch of rocking action in either direction.
Naturally, neither pig nor duck got a lot of playtime from either Kristin or I. Usually we’d head first to the monkey bars. It’s hard to explain, but they were composed of metal bars linked together to form triangles that, as a pack, formed a dome. The triangles were an interesting choice because even with size 5 feet, pressing your sneaker into the apex of the upside-down triangle to get leverage to get to the next level of triangle was, in a word, squishy.
But finally, we’d get to the top and then we’d just … sit there. Thinking back on it now, there was no final goal of the monkey bars, other than to get to the top. And the top was not really a cozy place to be. Because the whole structure was only made of bars, there was nowhere to comfortably sit without falling through a triangle, so you had to just keep yourself aloft spider-style.
At the park near our elementary school, there was a set of monkey bars in the shape of a spaceship, which was angled at 45 degrees. Still climbing, well on its way to the moon, you understand, but no longer upright because it had already reached outer space.
I love the propaganda of this. I love that spaceships appeared in playgrounds all over North America during the golden age of NASA and us kids didn’t even know it. All we knew is we all wanted to be astronauts.
Anyway, the goal was to get up on the ship. All the girls would vie to be Princess Leia and, imagining our hair was in swirly buns, we’d mightily climb until we got … nowhere. Because that spaceship, there were no seats at the top. You couldn’t even really get inside the ship because it was just made of a series of bars that were too narrowly aligned to squeeze into and, even if you did, you couldn’t exactly balance on the one long bar that formed the ship’s hull — you’d fall off.
But, thinking back on it, that’s kind of hilarious. In almost any iteration of the playgrounds of the 1970s and 1980s, there was almost no consideration put into how these structures would translate into play. I mean, yes, we made them work. Sure we did, we had a ball. But were we constantly aware we could hurt ourselves rather badly? Yes, yes we were. Was there always a moment in the midst of our play in which we wondered what the hell the point was? Yep, always. There was always that moment when you got to the top and thought: Is that all there is?
Still, I am not complaining. And honestly, I am having so much fun reminiscing, I’m going to break this column into two and discuss this some more.
Coming next week: swings, slides, seesaws of the 1980s.