Playgrounds have had many uses for me over the years.
When I was a child, of course, I played in them. The big one near our house was pretty awesome. It had a good swing set, an awesome merry-go-round that they removed because some kid apparently fell off it and got stuck underneath, and the best jungle gym ever. This jungle gym was all old, splinter-y wood. It had several levels, each with a big old tire attached somewhere. The whole middle of it was a big metal chain-net. It had a little section on the ground-level with a steering wheel. We played a lot of “Ship Captain” on that jungle gym. You could pretend to be a stowaway in one of the tires. The ship captain would use the steering wheel. Somebody would climb to the top and be the lookout. We could use the metal chain part to pretend to be slaves imprisoned on the ship, or to be the fish we were catching, or to hide and try to escape a killer on the ship. And of course, the whole playground was full of sand. It was in the middle of a grassy park, so you could get rid of the sand on the grass as you walked home. (And yes, we walked home.) But you got sandy every time. You just did.
When I was a teenager, playgrounds became a good place to drink. The town hadn’t figured out that they should put lights up so even when a patrol car drove around, as long as we stayed quiet and in the shadows there was never much of an issue. The sand was a great, huge ashtray and you could always find interesting bottle caps if you dug around a bit.
But when we looked old enough to use our hand-made fake IDs, (you could print up a new label for your school ID and the cute guy behind the counter at the video store would laminate it for you), we abandoned the playgrounds for the much more civilized world of bars.
After that, playgrounds became a place to avoid. Who wanted to be around screaming children? I was vaguely aware that the playground I grew up in was torn down and replaced with a new, sterile-looking sculpture, and I was vaguely aware that they stopped using sand. I thought that was all a bit sad, but whatever.
For a few years, I baby sat, so I ended up back on a playground. Thus began the depressing pastime of watching kids on playgrounds. When you’re babysitting, you’re on the lookout for your charge. Is she ok? Ok. Where is she? Over there. Ok. And this was before I even had a Blackberry to play with, so it was all pretty boring.
I stopped babysitting and playgrounds were once again out of my mind.
Then I decided to get pregnant and buy a house in the suburbs, and playgrounds were suddenly looked at longingly from afar. “Ooh, there’s one. Someday I’ll be spending all my time there, ” I would think, sitting comfortably in the air conditioned car.
Finally, when he was about a month old, I started taking him to playgrounds just to get out of the house. But sitting alone on a park bench with a baby is not much different from sitting alone on a couch with a baby. I’ve never been too interested in other people’s kids. The moms who had kids big enough to actually play all seemed to know each other and it bothered me that they were all wearing the exact same kinds of exercise clothes, like there was a playground uniform for mothers that I hadn’t been notified of. I felt like I shouldn’t be there.
There have been some better playground visits since then. Visits with moms of other young babies, where we would sit under the gazebo and chat as we fed the babies bottles in the shade. Visits with moms of bigger kids, where I would take baby out of his stroller and hold him while I chatted with the moms chasing their toddlers around. Mostly, though, I wheeled baby around in his stroller and felt like I shouldn’t be there.
But yesterday, I tried baby out in a swing at the playground. He didn’t seem like he was going to fall out, and he liked it. He sat in the swing and looked around; he smiled, he giggled a bit. Baby won’t be walking for quite some time. He’s not quite sitting up alone yet and he probably won’t be crawling for at least a month. But I finally have something to DO in a playground other than sitting on a park bench playing solitaire while baby chews his fingers. This is a small but significant event.