Monday, January 18, 2010

Playground 101

One playground where I wore myself out on afternoons as a military brat had a retired jet plane parked aside a rocket-shaped jungle gym. Wires spilled from the cockpit and the black leather seat was split from repeated exposure to sunlight and rain. The infrastructure looked almost skeletal and had a musty smell to match. It might have been a frightening place for me to play if my father wasn't a fighter pilot. Instead, it sated my curiosity to see the inner workings of an aircraft similar to the one he logged so many hours flying.

I only wish I had displayed the same bravado on my first trip to our neighborhood playground at Walter Pierce Park with my six month son in tow. He was finally solid enough to enjoy a ride in the bucket swings without suffering whiplash, so we left the unsociable but safe sidelines of the park and ventured within the gated play area. I knew we had every right to be there, but that thought made it only a little less overwhelming to be one of the newbies. I smiled at everyone, waited patiently for our turn at the swing, and repeated my new mantra: I'm doing this for my kid!

Why the initial apprehension? More flashbacks to my youth, I suppose, and the days of being the new kid on the block after yet another move. Military families tend to relocate more often than most families, except perhaps circus performers. But squadron wives band together and help raise each others' children like a pride of lionesses. Was I walking into a lion's den? I recalled the image of a postcard reproduced in the back of the Washington City Paper once that said, "I don't take my kids to the playground because I don't like talking to the other moms". This submission to Maryland artist Frank Warren's "Post Secret" community project, in which anonymous people mail him revamped postcards that confess their deepest secrets, registered years before I had a child.

Perhaps I can attribute my unease to an article I skimmed in one of several parenting magazines that my mother, a registered nurse who worked with an obstetrician, earmarked for me during my pregnancy. To paraphrase the article, the full-time mother-cum-freelance columnist suggested that a parent can be neatly summed up as one of four types according to the behaviors which they, not their children, display at a playground. There is the uber-conscientious helicopter parent who hovers over their child with an antiseptic wipe, circumventing boo-boos and intervening in any adolescent playground strife. Equally as committed is the ever youthful parent who keenly initiates and participates in their child's play even at the risk of looking like Godzilla towering over Tokyo on the child-size equipment. Next we see the easy-breezy-cool-and-easy parent who parenthetically builds their child's self-confidence from a reposeful place on a park bench, keeping a lazy eye on their child while gazing in reverie from behind a pair of dark sunglasses. And finally the multi-tasking parent, who is home on a comp day and is engrossed in conversation with another parent while checking their cell phone messages, is a career role model and provides moral support to the child who checks-in visually from across the playground now and again. I had no idea which type of parent I would be until I first lumbered up the steps of the junior jungle gym and scooched down the all-too-brief slide with my son on my lap like a giant lizard invading a city on the island of Japan.

Another mom brought her son, similar in age to mine, to join us in play. She was apparently also the same type of parent; I'll call her Mothra. From Mothra, I learned that asking the child's age is an appropriate icebreaker; I have used this myself many times since. Emblazoned by this brief but positive social opportunity for both my son and myself, I began to explore playgrounds in other zip codes as well.

Turtle Park in Van Ness has the reputation of being one of DC's most popular playgrounds (voted Best DC Playground in the 2009 Washington City Paper Readers' Poll) but is outside our zip code, so I felt trepidation again as I sized up the group of parents standing in a cozy circle near the sand box. Would they sense that we weren't from this part of town as soon as we stepped foot on "their" territory and raise their eyes disapprovingly? Or would they wrongly assume that I was a nanny and relax with a stranger in their midst? Were there unwritten rules for acceptable playground behavior different from the ones on our home turf, or could I go freely down the slide here with my son? I chuckled at the absurdity of it all when they packed their kids into SUVs which sported Maryland license plates and drove back home north on Wisconsin Avenue.

A playground worth noting for its beauty is the impeccably landscaped sanctuary at Mitchell Park on 23rd Street, NW. When we discovered it by happenstance on a long walk, my husband and I mused that this lush, green space could not possibly be managed alone by DC Department of Parks and Recreation but instead subsidized and manicured by an active community association and the proud residents of this affluent neighborhood.

I remember watching Sesame Street as a child of the suburbs and thinking, "So that's where city kids play?" Urban playgrounds seemed bleak then, of gray concrete and cold steel. I am relieved to see that that is no longer the case. Washington has many parks that have been adopted by local communities and given much needed upgrades to equipment and landscaping in the last ten years. The equipment is safer and vibrantly painted, often times with special areas including water spray features, rock climbing walls, and children's gardens. Some have community centers with public restrooms if you are planning to spend the day.

More information about recreation and community centers is available on the DC Department of Parks and Recreation website. I encourage you to explore different playgrounds to find the one that's right for you and your child. It may not even be the one that's closest to where you live, but don't let that stop you from going there. If you suffer from any doubts about leaving the comforts of your own 'hood, just imagine you are a jet fighter pilot or a colossal lizard and venture forth with confidence. Remember, you're doing this for your kid.

1 comment:

  1. Way to go Godzilla. I've strained a few back muscles and got some thigh flesh torn off on slides, but I have ventured forward. I only wish I could still do the monkey bars. I didn't realize how much strength one needed to accomplish such a feat as a child! I now watch proudly as my daughter engages in the same skilled feat across the bars now!



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