Underrated in America: Playgrounds

playgroundA new British study says that "boring" playgrounds are stifling kids creativity and blames the problem on "kit" playgrounds that are mostly designed to contain children rather than inspire them. I don't see how that's possible. My daughter plays on one of the most boring playgrounds around. It is small and definitely uninspired, basically consisting of a set of swings and a multi-platformed jungle gym area with a small slide. And she loves it more than anything.

I've taken her to more imaginative playgrounds, but she has never had as much fun as she has at her own neighborhood park, running an ice cream stand from one part of the deck, making food out of crumbled leaves and sticks on a different platform and imagining that she is flying on the swings. She runs and plays and begs to stay when I say it is time to come home.

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Her play in this rudimentary playground is about more than just getting her outside for some fresh air and exercise, although that's extremely important as well. Childhood obesity is a continuing problem, and while the latest numbers show that the epidemic might have plateaued, that still leaves a lot of children out there with weight problems, and with the potential to develop diabetes and other serious conditions. Playgrounds should be revered just for providing a space to a little running and jumping.

But for me, playgrounds are magical for the way they inspire kids to play. The more boring the better. It's the kids who make the difference, and that's why playgrounds, which allow kids to congregate in one space, are superior to any play gym in a private back yard. There are two other playgrounds very close to my house that are actually built better than our usual park, but we never go to them because there are never any other kids there (why? one is under the subway overpass and one is basically in a median strip by the highway -- Brooklyn can be a sad place for kids in some spots). We go to the busy playgound that is a far walk away because it's where everyone else goes, and that's what makes it the most fun. The kids feed off each other's play and enjoy themselves.

I've made the rounds to most of the local hot spots of play -- Gymboree, Little Gym, Kidville, etc. While my daughter likes playing with the padded equipment, it was in these places where I felt she was most stifled. She couldn't use much of the stuff on her own -- a grown-up had to spot her most of the time -- and there was just something about the environment that made it seem not at all like an indoor playground. It felt constricted, overly bright and, in a word, stifling.

In areas of the country where outdoor playgrounds aren't convenient for parts of the year, these commoditized zones of indoor play are the main alternatives. For older kids, the pay-for-play thing is even more crass, and directs kids to video games rather than exploring, creating and simply running free. Above all, these are businesses trying to make money, and that makes it more about selling snacks and trinkets rather than providing a space where kids can just be kids.

Gymboree, which started out as merely an indoor playspace, has mostly morphed into a clothing retailer, and is suffering along with the rest of that industry. Last winter its stock price tanked, only to recover and then tank again during the current economic crisis. The other outlets of its type in our area also rely heavily on selling clothes, toys and other items, as well as on expensive birthday parties and special events. If selling accessores and gizmos doesn't fly, even these spaces will go away.

If playgrounds got more respect and, hence, more funds from community budgets, there would be more alternatives than these pay-for-play businesses. And then in bad weather, kids would have some place to roam free and play, develop their imaginations and be kids for a little bit longer. Even local YMCAs could step up to fill some of this void, offering more free play opportunities rather than classes and other activities that restrict kids to one activity at a time.
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