Day 621: Back To The Playground

originally published September 12, 2013

I am no stranger to nostalgia, which I define as the patently false illusion that there was ever a time in one’s life before everything was mucked up beyond recognition. I lived in the same house for my entire childhood, and I’ll admit to feeling somewhat flattened by the bombardment of memories whenever I coast down that street. I fondly recall the spot where we built the kick-ass 3-room snow-fort. That spot down the alley where I had my first kiss? Sure. And I know every square inch of the street down which I sprinted in a Ferris Bueller-esque attempt to beat my parents home after curfew as my dad’s Cadillac lumbered down the alley.

But you know what I don’t miss? The playground.

To be clear, I experienced no playground trauma, no broken limbs, no shady-looking guy in a Megadeath ball cap and soot-grey trenchcoat. I simply grew up a half-block away from an ugly, uninspired playground. The city has since re-worked the equipment and layout twice in order to appease the more affluent yuppie crowd that has since taken over the neighborhood, but back in the 80’s it was terrible.

So in an effort to search for any scrap of nostalgia about that place, I’m going to look a little at some of the bland equipment that the city felt should have been sufficient to amuse us.

For starters, we had this slide. It wasn’t so much a slide at the height of summer – it was more an angled griddle, ready to deliver first-degree burns to the legs of any shorts-clad child who thought they could have a little fun with gravity. This was back before every sizeable slide needed to be fused with relatively safe platform equipment. No, we clambered up a ladder to get to our fun, and if some kid lost his footing and fell the fifteen feet to unquestionable doom, well, that was evolution.

The first playground slide was invented by Charles Wicksteed, the son of an impassioned British Unitarian minister who fought for universal suffrage and earned the respect of his contemporaries. Charles Jr. earned his stripes by bringing joy and entertainment to kids at Wicksteed Park, believed to be the oldest amusement park in England. His version of a playground slide was made from wooden planks, so it no doubt earned the nickname “Ol’ Ass-Slivers”.

Swings were an easy sell. Once you mastered the ability to control your own height, it didn’t matter that the set itself was suffering from chipped paint and the flatulent glow of rust around its bolts. Plus there was the possibility of serious injury, which always made an activity just a little more fun. I never actually saw someone let go of the chains and soar through the air, but I did witness a couple of careless schmucks walk into the path of a human pendulum and receive a Nike to the forehead as a result.

Back in 2002, a five-year-old kid named Steven Olsen was encouraged by his father – a Minnesota patent lawyer – to submit a patent for “sideways swinging”, or the act of pulling on each chain one at a time in order to facilitate a lateral movement. Olsen’s father wanted to teach his son that any idea for a new form of entertainment could be patented. The US Patent and Trademark Office issued the paperwork, but then rescinded the patent once they realized that it was completely insane.

Our playground never had a seesaw, but if it did I’m sure it would have been made from splintery wood. These are probably the easiest pieces of playground equipment to manufacture, and they’re relatively safe so long as you place them upon a thick bed of soft woodchips (you know, to soak up the blood).

The name ‘seesaw’ is believed to derive from the French “ci-ça”, or literally “this-that”. In most of the US and Canada they also go by the name ‘teeter-totter’, but we can get a little more specific than that. In northeastern Massachusetts they’re called teedle boards. Head down to Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island Sound and they’re called dandle boards. In North Carolina the proper term is hickey-horse.

Given that a seesaw is nothing more than a fulcrum set-up designed for play, why don’t we all just agree to call them fun-crums?

Yes, we had jungle gyms, or as we called them, monkeybars. Here I might allow a droplet of nostalgia to ooze from my fingertips – we had a lot of fun on these things. Where a slide, swings or seesaw has a specific purpose, a step-by-step procedure for extracting the particular fun for which they were intended, monkeybars were open-season. They could be a pirate ship, an unfinished skyscraper or some far-off chunk of the Death Star. Kids could be involved in three separate games with three distinct storylines, and the monkeybars could accommodate everyone.

The first jungle gym was concocted in 1920 by Chicago lawyer Sebastian Hinton. His father had built something similar out of bamboo when Sebastian was a kid, and he took the idea a step further and unleashed it upon the public. The one pictured above is actually Sebastian’s second prototype, which is still in use at Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois. That thing has to inspire some nostalgia in a few thousand kids from the area.

Yes, we had a merry-go-round, or roundabout or whatever you want to call them. This thing had the potential for fun but was far too heavy for two or three kids to really get going. Unless the playground was full (which it often was in the summer – remember, video games were mostly pretty sucky back then), no one wanted to put in the effort on this thing.

But it turns out this may have been the most incredible device in the playground. A US-based charity called Empower Playgrounds, founded by former ExxonMobil VP Ben Markham, came up with the idea of harnessing children’s merry-go-round fun for a greater purpose. Using a permanent rare earth magnet windmill generator, Empower turned the playground toy into a source of electricity. The technology was field-tested in Ghana and can now be found in sixteen rural African schools, generating electricity to help power villages that would otherwise still be relying on fire to light up the night.

To be clear, these aren’t work machines – all they require are regular doses of recess play to charge up their batteries. Also, the merry-go-rounds have the added benefit of teaching these kids a little about science as they play. Empower has also teamed up with enough corporate sponsors to come up with a scholarship to send a select few of these kids to high school, something they’d never otherwise be able to afford.

Now that’s a playground to be nostalgic about.

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