I am fascinated by playgrounds as mirrors of our society. And, lately, I have jumped back into playgrounds with both feet as several times a week I accompany my 20-month-old grandson Cassius (Cash for short) to one or another playground in Queens.
It has been hard earned. My son and daughter-in-law remain suspicious of my implementation of their many safety precautions: care crossing streets, not giving Cash whole grapes, not letting him climb UP the slides. The first time they let me take him, they followed to keep an eye on the two of us. I'm still on probation.
I had thought that, by dint of my son and his two sisters surviving into adulthood with all their limbs and no disfiguring scars, I had earned a ticket to escort Cash. That I have taken Cash out a half dozen times with the same perfect record would, I thought, have established my bona fides forever. Not so -- my playground supervision skills are still regarded with suspicion by many.
My son does let me take Cash out whenever I want. Here's what I've got going for me: When I make a motion to go outside, my grandson shouts "c'mon" and runs to the door, before he even has his sneakers on. And Cash never wants to leave the playground. When we get home, he still doesn't want to go inside. My son says, whenever he finally comes in, Cash is "tired and happy." When he wakes up the next morning he asks for "pop-pop."
It's about a mile trek to the playground as the crow flies. But -- unless the crow stops at every chain-link fence -- the trip takes us considerably longer than it does him. Why not? We're out for exercise and to see the world. Every time we encounter a new Halloween display or tall grass or a pile of leaves (remember that scene in Big) or some guys building steps or a wall, it's a totally novel experience for some of us. What fun!
At the playground, where parents of kids Cash's age trail them around, I -- the only male grandparent visible -- sit on a bench in the sun and keep my eye on him. The only time I intervene is when once or twice he has encountered something he hasn't climbed before, and he looks around for help. I don't actually help him, but I place my hand where he needs to get his next hold. Then I leave him to his own devices. Several mothers have said to me (was that admiringly or in shock), "How old is he?"
What I have learned about society at the playground.
Reading this quote about the impact of TV on children, I knew exactly what the analyst was talking about: "When a whole roomful of children have TV scripts driving their play, the play is between many separate children each alone with their invisible script, rather than many children creating something together, and flexing with each other's ideas."
Kids now come to playgrounds with tons of toys -- bikes and doll carriages and trucks and balls. (That's if they leave their houses at all -- which they more often do in New York City than in the suburbs, where playgrounds are often deserted.) But they don't plan on sharing them - just to play with their toys on the playground. I don't get it. I don't ask to bring any toys, because Cash is going to the playground to climb on various apparatuses and play with other kids.
When another kid leaves one toy to move on to another, Cash takes it up (don't worry -- we never leave with more aboard than we came). Sometimes the other child is shocked by Cash's boldness -- sometimes he or she screams or whines. But about half the time, after Cash indicates his willingness to return the toy, the other kid lets Cash have one of the toys. Sometimes they even play around one another -- how exciting! The other children's parents nearly always tell their kids to share their toys. So far, no one has called the police or, if a father is present, socked me.
When it's time to go, I bribe Cash to leave with his milk bottle or some grapes -- by this time, he is usually tired, thirsty, and hungry (many parents bring chips and cookies into the playground). He crawls into his stroller, and I push him part of the way home, until he finishes the bottle. Then he gets out and walks again -- sometimes he pushes the stroller. Once home, he takes a trowel from one of the planters and starts digging around the tree. Eventually, a parent looks out and asks if he wants lunch or dinner. Our expedition is over.
And neither Cash nor I is saying whether he has climbed up any slides.