The Best Playground Ever (Nature!)
A couple of years ago, Rebecca Mead wrote an article for the New Yorker about new play ground design. (You can find a summary here if you're not a subscriber.) In the article, she and other smart people criticized the current design of municipal playgrounds as too safe, too similar, and too boring. As a parent of two small children, I had to agree with the criticism. Every playground around here consists of some variation on a couple of platforms, some sand, and a few slides designed to prevent a child from sliding too fast, if at all (Henry especially tends to get stuck midway down). A few parks have something as fun as a tire swing. When we try to play a game of tag or hide-and-seek, our efforts at fun quickly grind down because there's nowhere to run or hide.
I'm especially sensitive to this because I grew up across the street from an awesome playground. The playground at Hillcrest Elementary School in Brookings, SD was built (no doubt at considerable public expense) when I was in first grade. It consisted of a forty-foot-square structure of platforms and monkeybars made of wood, ropes, and car tires. There were eight rows of monkeybars and rings, and a couple of the monkeybars were designed to be missing bars, so as to increase one's chance of falling. There were two tire swings. There was a central square pit that was criss-crossed with tight ropes placed at intervals that would allow an agile child to jump from rope to rope and ensure that a clumsy child would get hooked on one and tumble to the bottom. Tag on this structure was epic. During my elementary career I learned multiple escape routes from every location, many of them involving leaping, swinging, and landing precariously. It was the playground equivalent of the obstacle course from American Gladiator.
Needless to say, a kid or two fell and broke their wrist every month, increasing as the cold made the metal slippery and the sand rock-hard. (In retrospect, this may partially explain why the Brookings Bobcats of my cohort were such crap at sports involving throwing and catching.)
Well, times have changed, and playgrounds like that have been disassembled, and brightly colored plastic playpens have been erected in their place. So, on a boring Saturday morning, what's a parent to do? Why go to the local Devonian fossil bed/flood plain/pile of craggy rocks and broken concrete and let 'em scramble around like maniacs!