Nervous Nellies Kick Kids Off Dennis the Menace Park Locomotive: Victory Over Fun Now Complete

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.

Click here and here to see some good posts with photos of the park in its heyday from a site called Playgroundology.

Lots more photos available courtesy of the Facebook group.


12 Responses to Nervous Nellies Kick Kids Off Dennis the Menace Park Locomotive: Victory Over Fun Now Complete

  1. Gunta says:

    You definitely nailed it! It’s been sad to see fear taking over our lives so heavily.

  2. bigsurkate says:

    I think Ben Franklin’s quote used liberty and security, not safety, but otherwise, a great tome, as usual. Yes, giving up liberty for security has led to our downfall as a creative, risk-taking, evolving society. Sad, very sad, and the slippery slope we embarked on cannot be reclimbed, I fear. I hope I am wrong.

  3. xasauan says:

    The version of the Ben Franklin quote I used is the earliest known version. It comes from a 1755 letter to the Governor of Pennsylvania that is generally attributed to Franklin. It should be noted, though, that many people spoke and wrote variations on this theme during the revolutionary period and there is no way to know whether Franklin was the original author, or which version he may have ultimately preferred.

    In any event, this seemed like an appropriate place to let some version of this old sentiment ring through to the present.

    I’d like to think we can reclimb the slippery slope, but at the moment we’re still sliding down it pretty quickly and an awful lot of people seem to be enjoying the ride. I fear the bump at the bottom may hurt a whole lot worse than a fall from the locomotive.

  4. wendysurf says:

    You call that a helicopter? That’s not what I called it. Sadly my kids didn’t get to play on the helicopter, but they dis get to ride the train.

  5. […] is a pale shadow of the original and many who experienced its glory days as kids lament its passing. And who can blame them when there was excitement like the helicopter spinny thing of death which […]

  6. Kate says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. I was thinking precisely the same thing about the value of the helicopter only recently. As a kid, I was always a little scared of it, but I inevitably headed straight for it every time we went to the park. Looking back, it was so very healthy to learn to face my fear and push through it like that. I’m really glad I had the chance to do it, and I think it’s a shame that we’re not letting kids today have the same opportunity. It is, as you say, a small part of a much larger problem.
    Your entire post was right on. Thank you!

  7. Linda says:

    I have a picture of me standing in front of the nose of the train when I was two years old. I have since taken my daughter’s picture there when she was two, and my grandsons at 5 and 2 years old. Three generations. My last trip there, being 50+ years old… I still climbed and played on the train and had the best time ever!

  8. Andrew says:

    That is sad, They won’t let you get stuck under the Engine. I climbed the climbing wall, where the Helicopter was, and Fell off the top. I am glad that it was that playground Padding. It still hurt. I guess having it roped off is better than them trying to come up with money for them to try and remove it… Can you imagine that.

  9. I loved that Helicopter! I think they took it down a few years after I last went in Junior High, but man, great memories. I had a friend who broke their arm and successfully sued falling off one of the sides, so go figure.

  10. It is probably because some soccer moms got together and sued the park & Rec ( the city) or threatened to … so yup they ruined it for the rest of you …. and there ya go

  11. gayle says:

    The sheer pleasure of Dennis the Mennace Park far out-weighed any risk of playing there. My grandma encouraged us kids to play there. Funny, but she was a big worrier, unless we were at the Park. Risk was totally encouraged!! So sad to see it turning into just another ‘playground’, and not kept as the unique feature of Monterey it once was. Progress?? No way!!

  12. VikingMomSD says:

    @ Gayle- well said. I remember it being the first play ground with real sand! Is the suspension bridge still there? It was there that I learner to conquer my fear of hights. I suggest reading Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. It is a sobering look on how these boring planned playgrounds negatively effect children’s emotions and psychological growth. Its why I am an advocate for Waldorf and Montessori schools.

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