Kiss it goodbye, kids
Nothing sums up the changing attitudes toward safety and security in this country better than the decline and fall of Monterey’s Dennis the Menace Park.
Envisioned by cartoonist, Hank Ketchum and designed by sculptor, Arch Garner, Dennis the Menace Park, when it opened in 1956, was, quite simply, one of the greatest playgrounds of all time. Anyone who didn’t get to play there themselves in the 50’s and 60’s need only look at the Facebook group dedicated to the park to get a sense of the level of excitement the place generated. We doubt the kids playing in today’s generic playgrounds will be looking back 50 years later with that kind of nostalgia.
The original park featured large metal play structures that doubled as works of modern art – including a Calder-esque “helicopter” spinning on top of a tower – lightening-fast slides, and the big steam locomotive to climb on. As anyone who had the good fortune to play there can tell you, it was amazingly, deliriously, and almost supernaturally, fun.
The fact that it was clearly possible to get injured was part of what made it engaging. It was real. Yes, falling from the locomotive or the top of the play equipment would definitely hurt. You could expect to get the wind knocked out of you playing there. You could expect to twist an ankle or skin a knee if you were careless about how you used the slides. There were places where you could even break an arm or a leg if you weren’t careful. So you learned to be careful. You learned how to safely push your limits.
The day I discovered my arms had finally grown long enough (barely) to make the reach that would allow me to join the big kids at the very back of the spinning helicopter still stands out as a major rite of passage in my life. Clinging by fingertips to the spinning exoskeleton of the chopper, fighting the centrifugal forces working to throw me off, laboring to suppress the fear of falling, to focus on the task at hand, then making the final move and … success! Sweet, sweet success!
Once upon a time, adults thought allowing children these kinds of experiences was worth the occasional broken arm or ankle. Today, if a contraption like that helicopter could still be found, you’d probably lose custody of your children if you allowed them to play on it.
It happened slowly.
First safety rails started getting welded onto the locomotive and other park equipment. Made it a little less genuine, a little less fun … but no big deal. Then moving parts that might catch fingers started getting welded in place … big reduction in fun, when you couldn’t move the locomotive’s controls, open and shut its steel panels and swing its bell anymore. Eventually, even the helicopter was welded in place … the end of an era … then removed all together. One by one, Garner’s other epic play sculptures disappeared. The fast slides were replaced with slow ones. Generic play equipment began to appear.
And today comes news that the locomotive, which has languished behind a temporary fence since February, will be permanently fenced off. From now on, only generic, safety-certified play will be tolerated. Final victory for the anti-fun police.
Some say this is all about society becoming more litigious. I don’t agree. People were pretty litigious back in the 50’s and 60’s too. What’s changed is attitudes toward safety. Liability for a playground injury requires negligence. Back then, people on juries didn’t think it was negligent to let kids play on locomotives and spinning helicopter contraptions. Today they do. It’s a change in ideas about what kind of play is “appropriate” that makes liability greater today, not a greater willingness to sue.
The real question is why we’ve become so much more afraid to let children engage with a world that hasn’t been dumbed-down and hand-railed for them.
And not just children. Let’s face it. It goes a lot deeper than that.
We now seem to be enshrining safety and security, at all levels of society, as our most cherished and sacred value. People are now willing, even eager, to give up their most fundamental Constitutional rights in the name of safety and security. It’s all part and parcel of the same hyper risk-averse phenomenon.
Benjamin Franklin famously remarked that Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. I don’t know what it is that people gladly throwing their due process rights out the window for fear of “terrorists,” or people kicking little kids off locomotives for fear of sprained ankles “deserve,” but I wish they’d learn to put their fears in perspective.
Dangling from the side of that spinning helicopter contraption taught me, at an early age, some important lessons about facing, and dealing constructively with, fear. A valuable experience we seem more and more determined to prevent our children from having.
I think we’d be better off with more, not less, handrail-free locomotives and spinning helicopter contraptions around.
And not just for kids.
Click here to view a video that includes a short clip of the “helicopter” in action.
Lots more photos available courtesy of the Facebook group.