Faith in Vermont: The New Playground

Middlebury's Mary Hogan Elementary School got a new playground this summer. If you're the parent of a young child, this is probably old news. I myself have taken my four daughters to what we call "The New Kidspace" on a weekly basis for the past month; they play on the playground while I gaze longingly at the school building and count the days until vacation ends.

The new playground is a welcome update. The "Old Kidspace" was erected back when I was in elementary school, when the height of technology was using Logo to move a pixelated turtle in a square on your computer screen. It was a splinter factory, constructed of wood and tires and heavy chains. If that sounds medieval, it was.

The New Kidspace is built mostly of plastic, which probably isn't really plastic, but some sort of recycled composite material. It features two three-story tall towers, a series of ramps and walkways, multiple climbing walls, slides both twisty and straight, and ladders that rise perpendicular or twist around like double helixes.

After our first outing to the new playground, I asked my oldest daughter -- who attended kindergarten at the Mary Hogan School last year and had daily experience with "The Old Kidspace" -- to rate her experience.

"Is it better than the old playground?" I inquired.

"No," she answered.

"Is it worse?" I asked, alarmed that my tax dollars may have been misspent.

"No," she replied, "It's just different."

The next day, she was begging to return to the new playground.

And that, of course, is the essence of what it is to be a kid: Everything elicits awe and excitement. The new playground and the old playground are equally worthy, equally fun.

So my children, all four of them, give the new playground high marks. And me?

What both excites and worries me about the new playground is that it's not "safe." Much criticism has been lobbed at modern parents for their desire to coddle and protect their children, to make life too easy and safe for their precious charges. This new playground does nothing of the sort. It's a playground to be climbed, and there are no nets. A ladder designed to look like a beanstalk, with flat "leaves" attached to a central pole, stretches a good 10 feet in the air. Almost as tall is the climbing wall created to resemble a natural arch of rock, which is accessed from an opening in a tower about 8 feet above the ground.

The opposite of climbing is falling. I look at this playground, and the mother in me has visions of future falls. How many collarbones will be broken here? I wonder.

At the same time, I applaud this playground for forcing kids to be kids: to climb high and take risks. It seems to me that a childhood without injury is a childhood deferred. As a child, I longed for broken bones, and tried everything (in vain) to break something so that I could get that elusive cast for my friends to sign. (Even better would have been a hospital stay, like those romanticized in the Madeleine and Curious George books.)

My dedication to the unsafe life was put to the test during our second visit to the playground, when my three-year-old daughter got herself stuck halfway out on top of the aforementioned climbing wall. It took the help of three other mothers for me to rescue her: one to hold my one-year-old, one to hold my legs, and one to catch my daughter as I lowered her down. As I, a grown woman, inched out along that wall, I looked down and thought, Yikes!

(Of course, I may have brought this on myself by ignoring the sign warning that the playground is designed for ages five and up. But who pays attention to playground age limits?)

One observation about the new playground is that, after a good 30 minutes on it, my daughters always end up heading for the smaller fenced-in playground next door. Why? Because it has the swings.

And that's my criticism of the "New Kidspace:" no swings. Not even a tire swing. Instead, there's one large round disk, like a sledding saucer, suspended from cables between two poles. It's the only feature of the new playground that feels safe -- too safe. Sure, it can hold multiple children, which I guess supports our modern emphasis on community. But it can't go fast or high. It can't spin in circles that make you dizzy and sick.

So my children -- and many others -- run to the old-fashioned swings. Because sometimes you just want to be alone, flying through the air until you feel like you might leave that swing and go into orbit.


Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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