Baumgartner Vaughan: Lessons of the playground

Mar. 15, 2014 @ 04:27 PM

This past weekend, I played on a playground that had the kind of equipment popular today, with bright colors and arching monkey bars and plastic slides. It also had a lot of metal and chipped paint equipment, including swings that were actual seats with armrests, a see-saw and a merry-go-round.

It was in a rural county in Southwestern Virginia where my husband grew up. It’s the town park, located across from a fire station, town hall and a few businesses surrounded by farms and mountains and winding roads. It is, as Scotty McCreery would sing, a “Water Tower Town.” The park even has an old caboose to check out, parked near fairly busy railroad tracks. (The tracks are behind a fence, if you were wondering.) As playgrounds and parks go, it’s a pretty awesome one. It’s not fancy, but it works. Kids don’t need expensive stuff, but they do need some stuff to play on, and they need it walking distance from houses or at least a short drive away. This is something that our taxes should go toward because parks and recreation is not an afterthought, but a quality-of-life issue.

The playground hadn’t wrapped everything in bubble wrap, though there were soft rubber pieces under some of the newer equipment. No gravel to pick out of skinned knees like in my day, so fewer scar stories. I rode the merry-go-round with my son because it is fun. But just for a minute, and then off to parental seating when more kids came over to play.
From the grownup swings, my husband and I watched an interesting situation play out in the societal microcosm of youngsters. Little kids pushed the merry-go-round for big kids, the momentum keeping it going pretty fast. A toddler wandered by, and another kid yelled “Stop!” in case the little one wanted to get on. Kids asked each other’s names. From strangers to playmates in a second, that’s what a playground does.
Then one girl kept losing her shoe, and other kids picked it up and gave it back. Eventually we saw another girl pick up the shoe, and the shoe went missing. Did she still have the shoe? Kids got on and off the merry-go-round intermittently trying to locate the lost shoe, being helpful but not stressing about it. Soon finding the shoe became a goal of a half dozen kids. Eventually I saw that the girl, presumed sister of the lost shoe girl, was hiding the shoe. My husband and I discussed the situation, observing and wondering how it would play out. We sat back and watched. And waited. Around and around they went. The shoe search continued.
Finally the older girl sat up, tossed the shoe and declared: “I had the shoe the whole time!” Kids laughed and they kept going around.
It wasn’t the outcome or reaction I expected, and it was awesome. She fessed up quickly and loudly. Other kids took it as “no harm, no foul” and kept the ride going.
That’s what a playground – new and plastic or old and rusted – can do. It’s a place where kids learn to meet and greet, share, lend a hand, make a joke, let someone off the hook, and just keep on playing. We stayed until sunset.
Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan may be reached at dvaughan@heraldsun.com or 919-419-6563. Follow on Twitter: @dawnbvaughan.