Friday, May 25, 2018
Human Interest

The rocky history of kids' play

When Ben Montgomery proposed writing a defense of Tampa's Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, I didn't expect that it would launch me on a meandering tour of the playgrounds of my youth. Turns out that the hilly and somewhat scruffy park across from downtown was designed by the same landscape architect who transformed the playgrounds in New York where I deposited a great many layers of skin.

As Ben explains in his piece ("Revive, Don't Raze", Page 7), Richard Dattner almost single-handedly revamped playgrounds in New York from spartan plots of asphalt adorned with a utilitarian array of equipment — swings, monkey bars, slide and seesaw — into true playscapes replete with tunnels and mountains, rope swings and fire poles. I had no idea in the early 1970s, as I clambered up the Ziggurat at the 72nd Street playground, that I was practicing an adventurous style of play intended to promote my psychological development. I just thought a frontal assault with lots of blood-curdling screaming was the only tactic likely to dislodge my enemies guarding the citadel.

It seems hugely ironic to me now that Dattner was encouraging healthily dangerous play. Just being in Central Park was dangerous before Rudy Giuliani scrubbed the city clean and made it safe for yuppies and their offspring. That would include me and my wife, I should note. On many visits to the city, we have spent hours watching our boys scamper pell-mell over the park's exposed boulders; nobody, in my opinion, has improved on 450-million-year-old schist as a playscape. When they were younger, the boys had a particular fondness for a twisting 45-foot-long granite slide near 67th Street that they discovered was twice as much fun (read: twice as fast) if you rode a piece of cardboard down it. My policy then — and it's my policy still — is watchful noninterference. Have at it, I say, while ready to run to the closest emergency room when Peter splits his chin open trying to beat his older brother to the bottom. Travel tip: Lenox Hill Hospital is 13 blocks away.

Peter still likes that slide.

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