Reading an article in the current New Yorker about new, innovative playgrounds being built in the city, my mind naturally returned to my grade-school playground. Bartlett School, a rather ancient brick structure even in the 1950s, stood a tall two stories high at the base of the bluff overlooking the Chippewa River from the east, just a few blocks from Eau Claire's city center. A long concrete stairway with sturdy metal railings climbed the bluff to provide access to children living atop.
On the south side of the school was a playground, a huge space to a kid, an unsafe nightmare to parents of today. As I remember, it was entirely blacktopped, although my mind boggles at the notion. The swings - tall structures from the perspective of a twerp - had hard wooden seats. Once during my time at Bartlett School, a little girl walked in front of a swing. It was like being brained by a baseball bat. I don't remember her fate.
More recently, of course, playgrounds have become safer. Monkey bars have sand pits below them to cushion a fall. Swing seats are made of soft rubber. Slides are gentle, a blacktopped playground is nowhere to be seen.
The latest playgrounds, it seems, involve "loose parts." The idea is to have - OK, some slides, etc., - but mostly lots of sand (with running water for the sand to dam), and those loose parts. Big, foam blocks and other parts - cogs, arches, hinges - that kids can work together with to build whatever their imaginations can come up with. Putting together young brains, is the hope.
It all seems a lot more sensible than the playground I remember (including the vicious dodgeball games). And it beats the inevitable winter occurrence I remember with a stab of childlike horror - some kid feeling the need to step onto that stair at the base of the bluff and put his or her tongue on that metal rail.