My daughter is a connoisseur of fine playgrounds. Often, when we’re driving through somewhere unfamiliar, we’ll hear an excited voice from the backseat: “Look! Over there!” Sure enough, there’ll be a tell-tale yellow slide or a row of swings on the horizon.
What we typically won’t see? People. Wherever we go, whatever the day or time, America’s playgrounds seem empty. No new parents feeding newborns on benches, no infants swaying in the baby swings, no top-heavy toddlers stumbling up the ramps, and no grade-school kids leaping brazenly from the uppermost parapets. Of course, there are exceptions—well-placed, unique parks that still attract a crowd—but more often than not, we’re the only family at a playground.
Why is this? Was it always this way? If not, what changed?
One explanation I can rule out: kids didn’t abandon our parks because playgrounds somehow got worse. Yes, they’ve removed the jagged metal edges and concrete pads of decades past, but playgrounds have undeniably improved over the years. They now feature double curly-Q tunnel slides, massive subterranean mazes, bouncy bridges, two-person swings, climbing walls, and countless other “play-ventions” that didn’t exist when I was a kid. Even fast food playgrounds have evolved into four-story-tall wonder-worlds.
Our playgrounds are better than they’ve ever been. So what it is it? What’s keeping the kids away? Here are some guesses:
- We’re too busy. Parents are stretched thin and can’t spare the time to prioritize their kids’ outdoor play. For their part, kids have overpacked schedules, too, bouncing from one extracurricular to the next: sports, music, dance, etc., etc.
- We’re scared. In another era, many parents wouldn’t hesitate to let their children walk a few blocks or ride their bikes to the neighborhood playground and stay there for hours on end. That sort of “leash-free” parenting is pretty rare these days, in an era when cable news amps up our suspicion and anxiety to irrational levels.
- Blame the screens? As our daughter grows, she’s increasingly obsessed with watching TV and playing simple video games on her tablet. “I just want to watch TV all day,” she pouts, when we take her Kindle away. We’re not alone in this struggle, I know. The kids missing from the playground may well be cooped up inside, staring at a TV screen or poking away at an iPad.
The truth is that all of these explanations probably factor into the exodus of children from the public square.
Of course, on the one hand, we like the fact that playgrounds are uncrowded. Our daughter never has to wait for her plaything of choice, and there’s plenty of room for us to join her, without any worry about stomping someone else’s munchkin.
But on the other hand, town councils and municipal committees are bound to notice that their pristine playsets are nearly always empty. Will they continue to spend precious tax dollars on building and maintaining playgrounds, when so few residents patronize them? ■