Sunday, 7 September 2014


“Play is the work of children”….. J. Piaget

Felix adores the playground. After breakfast we chuck on some clothes and trundle down the road, and as I crank open the gate he starts to vibrate with excitement. We play on the swings, we do a few supervised slides, explore the pit of wood chips, touch the tree. Our local playground is a dilapidated affair and I used to think it bleak, but the more time I spend there the more I appreciate its gentle charms. For some reason it has escaped the wave of refurbishments that has transformed most play areas, and stands as a reminder of times past. The main playframe is hopelessly outdated; the peeling paint and halfhearted attempt to resemble a space station striking a pathetic note. And yet everyday I see children playing happily on the drab metal platforms, the power of imagination transporting them to galaxies beyond our knowledge. In the corner sits a huge sycamore, its branches arching gracefully overhead, a protector of all who play there. The grass underneath is luxuriant and impossibly green, shaded by the tree-umbrella is has escaped the baking heat of summer. Felix plays happily amongst the vivid stalks, using the trunk as a pull-me-up, occasionally craning his neck to gaze at the massive canopy. In the past week his desire to walk has become overwhelming, and as we have precious little space in the flat the playground has become his training ground. His plastic walker is slung over the buggy bars and released into the arena where he seizes upon it and races about with glee, the light of triumph shining in his eyes. 

Spending so much time in playgrounds has triggered a flood of memories from my own childhood. The new play areas are a world apart from the death arenas of years past, full of spongy sprung floors to cushion any falls and ergonomically designed rides that minimise injuries. The ugly metal climbing
frames of old have been banished to the scrapheap, and nostalgia fills me as I think of those rusty scarecrows ripped from their moorings after decades of loyal service. A few still remain; stark reminders of a time when town planners envisioned a Brutalist urban landscape clad in metal and concrete, all hard edges and man made materials. Not really the stuff that kids should play on but we made the best of it, weaving fantasy worlds amongst the austere metal frames, our knees and elbows scraped raw by gravelly falls. In contrast now there is a welcome return to wooden playframes set in woodchip pits, offering a soft fall and an evocative smell reminiscent of childhood trips to the Polish woodland, where the profusion of pine and cedars released their evergreen perfume throughout the forest. Amongst the sprung floors and newly planted trees a new generation of swings has sprung up like inverted mushrooms. These giant saucers hang hammock-like from thick log supports, often with three or four kids piled high as apples in a basket, pushing frenziedly and shrieking with delight as the saucer threatens to go the full 360. 

“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold” said Joseph Chilton Pearce, and I have started to understand the playground as a microcosm of life. Everyone is at different stages of development, playing out their dramas, choosing their rides, scared and excited about taking the leap into the unknown. Pain and joy, rejection and acceptance, fear and courage, many complex emotions are explored for the first time amongst the swings and the slides and the seesaws, and it is our job as parents to put ourselves in the tiny shoes of our offspring and remember the power, the vital importance of play.

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