Look mum, no hands: Playgrounds of the past

Sep 17, 2022
Playgrounds aren't what they used to be. Source: Pam Van Der Kooy

I read the results of what I thought might be an interesting survey conducted by Infosys Digital Radar in 2019. The outcome stated that Australia was among the most risk-averse in the developed world. When you consider it was a survey of 9000 people (between the ages of 16 and 25) from nine countries whose cumulative population is around 5 and a half billion, you could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the sample was a little small to make any mind-blowing declarations.

However, having grown up with bottom scalding metal slides and teeth-shattering log swings, and having been involved in early childhood education since the 1980s, I could see where they were coming from.

Modern playgrounds have had to adapt to a plethora of changes brought about by litigation, the actual need for some safety improvements (yes, I admit it), and the overprotective helicopter parents that we seem to have spawned. Playground design is governed by standards that help to minimize the potential for injuries and while a lot of them are common sense, perhaps they are now too safe, coming at the loss of the child’s ability to assess the difference between a good risk and a bad risk, leading to what is called ‘inappropriate risk-taking’ (we did that later on).

Now I’m not saying Mark Zuckerberg was referring to judging the monkey bars in his statement, “The biggest risk is not taking a risk”, but it definitely applies just as well to the playground.

Herewith a list of ‘equipment’ that we developed our risk judgement processes on – not always successfully.

Swings, usually a wooden seat suspended with chains or with solid iron rods linked by circles (developed to help prevent small digits from being caught in the links). The party trick (on chain swings) was to swing ridiculously high and try and go over the top or to jump off and land like a gymnast while it was still swinging. Your brother could stand on the swing with you, as you were seated, and help push you higher.

Chain or rope ones were also great for spinning. Home-made swings from a hunk of timber or an old tyre were in every backyard with a half-decent tree or tied around a joist under the house. There were also the log or plank swings with a child on each end, or the mother of log swings, where you could fit a number of squealing children who hung on for dear life as the boys would stand either end and push them as high as they could.

Here we learnt the physics of velocity combined with metal or timber in relation to the position of teeth.

Backyard swing sets became a big status symbol with multiple combinations including the twin glide swing, chain swing, trapeze bar and rings, bike swing and chain ladder. The object of these was to swing so high that the legs would lift off the ground as dad was watching from the window wondering how else he could secure it.

Slippery slides were usually highly polished metal that burnt backsides in summer, with the top, where you waited your turn, usually worn down into a butt shape. After rain, there was always a big puddle at the bottom.

After discussing with my husband, I have found out that boys had a completely different memory of some playground equipment, making mention of the ones who would wait to golly on the slide as you were halfway down.

Here we learnt either patience waiting for the one in front to get off the slide at the bottom OR we learnt to get off the slide really fast before the next person came down. Obviously, boys learnt how to maneuver quickly in transit.

Seesaws were the ultimate in risky business, either as a ‘doer’ or a ‘done to’. Backyard seesaws were often rigged up by dad, or you might have had the semi-circular, finger-crushing, metal teeter totter.

Placid seesawing was great but enter big brothers and the whole game changed. They would jump off while your end was suspended or would walk from end to end… and then jump off.

Here we learnt to make risk judgements on the nature of our fellow playmates, and how to remove splinters!

Monkey bars have had a flogging in recent years and have been ripped out of playgrounds as being too dangerous. It’s paradoxical that the very thing which would provide children with the opportunity to develop much-needed (and today lacking) upper body strength is removed.

Competitions at school to see who could skip the bar in between was de rigueur, while there were those who would flout convention and try to walk across the top. They either made it or entered into the stats for monkey bar accidents.

Jungle gyms and climbing frames were in almost every playground and were of various shapes and sizes. They were another great developer of upper body strength and hanging upside down.

There was one that was sort of pyramidal with a central climbing shaft. My husband was at the bottom of one of these shafts when the girl up the top decided to wet her pants. There was no way out and he copped the lot. Character-building stuff.

Roundabouts and spinners were awesome feats of basic engineering. If you weren’t too brave you would hang in the centre while the ones with something to prove, defied centrifugal forces and hung out at the edge of the platform as others would run as fast as they could pushing the spinner around.

Once again we learnt about physics, this time combined with sandwiches and quantities of liquid.

The chain maypole with its dangling rings on chains around a central pole weren’t all that common, but once again, upper body strength got a workout.

Playgrounds, especially in schools or kindergartens, had other interactive and creative elements. Sometimes they were just leftover building equipment like concrete pipes and wooden cable rolls, other times they were rocket ship-inspired climbing frames with slippery slides or igloo-shaped metal frameworks and forts.

The old car, tractor or truck was coveted and there would be a rush to claim the driver’s seat. Scramble nets and flying foxes all fuelled the imagination and the muscles. Sandpits had the necessary equipment trooped out each day and many hours were spent playing there. They were diligently covered each night to keep the roaming cats from making deposits in the moats we had left.

Today the pendulum seems to be swinging ever so slightly back, with early childhood research realizing that our adherence to risk avoidance in our playgrounds has actually led us to be less safe. We need to provide challenges within a safe environment. Kids need the opportunity to learn to recognize what risk is.

Now, could you hold my mobile phone while I hang upside down for a while off of this railing.

Leave your comment

Please sign in to post a comment.
Retrieving conversation…
Stories that matter
Emails delivered daily
Sign up