Safety First. I grew up being reminded of the personal responsibility for my own safety ad nauseum – at home, at school, at church, at Brownie meetings. Most of the time those reminders worked just fine. I’ve always been a smart cookie and could recognize danger when it was staring me down on the playground. On occasion, however, I had to learn the hard way. Maybe I was distracted at the time. Or perhaps I wanted to test my own youthful invincibility. Or maybe I was just being a little smart-ass, and it backfired.
At any rate, once the warnings had been given – many, many times – the adults figured we were on our own from there on out. I don’t recall ever being swaddled in foam rubber or put in a protective plastic bubble. My theory is that our authority figures believed we were smart enough to heed all those safety heads-ups. If not, well, a lesson would be learned the old fashioned experiential way. In short, once we’d been warned, it was up to us not to kill ourselves. I know that I understood that at a very early age.
Fast forward to 2009. Been to a playground or park or pool lately? Tempted to ride a bike or skateboard – even around your backyard – without a helmet and enough padding to shut off the air supply to your pores? In case you haven’t experienced any of these things recently, let me paint the picture for you. There is absolutely nothing death-defying (which was the fun part, if you’ll remember) to any slice of childhood today.
All the fun has been sucked out of life’s most thrilling moments – example, settling into a good old-fashioned wooden-seated swing and trying to get as high off the ground as possible. And, of course, at some point being dare-devil enough to jump out. Woo-hoo! And a sliding board? Please. Atlanta’s parks used to have these mile-high slides. Only the brave attempted the steep ladder (don’t look down). Sheer joy! And at the bottom? Dirt and/or rocks. But we’d go back up time and time again for the sheer thrill of it all.
Remember the guts it took to go off the high-dive at a public swimming pool? Yowser! But, oh! What a sense of accomplishment – the true Red Badge of Courage for a youngster.
Before I go on, I want you to know that I do not have mass death wishes for the children of today. Safety First!, remember? I realize the need for helmet laws for bicycles (grudgingly). I understand parents want to keep their little darlings from feeling the world’s physical pain. And I certainly understand that we live in an ultra-litigious society. Personal safety isn’t my responsibility anymore. It’s, um, somebody else’s. Or I’ll sue.
So playgrounds are plastic and soft. Swings are unswingable. Slides are three feet high, tops. And, God forbid, rocks and dirt! No, playground surfaces must be like those packing peanuts, all foam and soft. No more high-dives, either, unless you’re Olympics-bound. No more breeze in your hair, as you race through the neighborhood on your bike, Leave It to Beaver-style.
Funny thing is that I don’t remember huge death tolls from pre-1970’s playgrounds. In fact, we Baby Boomers seemed to thrive jumping out of high-flying swings and tumbling off high diving boards into the water below. I mean most of us are still around, much to the chagrin of younger generations and Social Security.
One of life’s biggest lessons – and I think most of us learned it somewhere along the way – was getting popped in the teeth with a swing. Did it hurt? You bet. But I’ll wager most of us never stood in back of/in front of a moving swing again, eh? And that one lesson, along with many other playground escapades, prepared us for all the other teeth-bashing life-lessons to come.
Will the children of today know when to get out of the way of all the big, bad swings coming right at them?