Neighborhood NewsGreen Space & The RiverLocal Culture

Great Playgrounds and Great Communities

Building Community

“What makes a great playground?” is not unlike the question, “what makes a great community?” Among the joys of being a grandparent is spending time at playgrounds that we once enjoyed with our own children. On this particular outing, the first place our almost two year old grandson headed was one of several slide options. He chose to go down head first, protected by winter gear that slowed him down substantially and a grandparent waiting with open arms at the bottom. After time on the slide it was onto the swings with choices for toddlers that provide the freedom of swinging without the risk of an injury for a child who hasn’t quite developed the skills of holding on tight. Next, it was over to a horse planted in the ground with a spring as its feet. Like with the swings and slides, the horse was surrounded by sand to cushion any fall. 

It is clear in watching the enthusiasm of our grandson at the playground and other children we encounter, that the playgrounds have been designed with a couple key elements in mind. A well designed playground provides children the opportunity to maximize their potential. Whatever their age or whatever their ability, a great playground provides opportunities for children to challenge themselves, take some risks and learn what they are capable of and comfortable doing at this particular stage. In more recent years, a growing number of people understand children of differing abilities are among those who need to be included. 

Second, a great playground is designed for safety. The taller slides that look so imposing, come with twists and turns, slowing the pull of gravity, so that a child may experience the exhilaration of height and speed without ending up with a trip to the hospital. 

The third thing that one notices at playgrounds is that children, especially the younger children, are invariably accompanied by an adult who keeps a watchful eye at all times and stands ready to intervene if there is need. The first two elements of a great playground go into the design and planning process. The third element is the essential role played by the parent or guardian.

Like playgrounds, great communities require institutions and leaders, who have as a central goal the maximization of potential for all its residents, where we can take risks, be challenged and have opportunities to grow and learn. Ibraham Kendi in his book “How To Be An Antiracist,” defines racism as the marriage of policies and ideas that produce and normalize racial inequities. To put it in playground terms, it would be reflected in playgrounds intentionally designed to maximize the potential of some children, but deny those opportunities to other children. Great communities will necessarily have in their planning the presence, the voice and needs of all their residents with the goal of being a place where everyone might live their best lives. 

Like playgrounds, great communities are a place in which safety is a primary consideration. Safety, however, does not necessarily mean greater police presence and certainly not a militarized police presence. On the contrary, a great playground is one in which you hardly notice the way in which safety has been woven into the design. Curving slides, soft sand and age appropriate swings all add to the fun. Great Communities who take safety seriously recognize the value of such things as summer programs for youth, well-marked crosswalks for pedestrians and green spaces in which people can reconnect with nature, neighbors and even ourselves. 

Like playgrounds, great communities require the participation of those who reside, shop and live in this place we call home. No responsible parent sends their young children off to a playground by themselves. Parents, grandparents or whoever a child’s guardian is understand the importance of our presence. In communities, too often, we come to feel our vote, our voice, our presence is not all that important. But, showing up, being vigilant and engaged matters every bit as much as the ones watching children at the playground as they explore, grow and learn. There is great joy taking a grandchild to the playground and there can be great joy in helping create communities where everyone can thrive.

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