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  • Joanne Jacobs

Back in the day, playgrounds were unsafe -- and fun

The first Saturday of each month is National Play Outside Day, writes Don Mathis. He remembers the exciting -- and dangerous -- playgrounds of the '50s.


"The metal slide was blistering hot in the summer," he writes. Mathis is still carrying a splinter from a wooden handrail. "The best slides were 20 feet off the ground."

The merry-go-round was the most popular – and the most dangerous. Kids would stay on until they puked with dizziness. Children would try to enter the spinning platform, misjudge the speed, and hit their teeth on the iron handles.
Other kids would leap off the spin cycle of the merry-go-round and hit the ground tumbling.
Eight-year-olds would sit with their feet hanging off the edge, a five-year-old would come walking by and get kicked in the gut or butt.

At my elementary school, kindergarteners weren't supposed to go on the roundabout. The summer before I started first grade it was removed because some kid fell off and broke his collarbone. I was indignant.


Mathis would swing on the monkey bars until he got blisters on his hands. "I’d pop them and peel the dead skin off of my raw, red palms," he writes. A few days later, he'd be swinging again.

The seesaw . . . gave kids a sense of balance – and splinters covered with lead paint. It allowed pre-teens a platform to walk up one side, balance on the fulcrum, and step down the other side.
Once in a while, one kid would actually sit on one end of the teeter-totter, another kid on the other, and they would rock back and forth. But only for a while. Invariably one kid would try to jolt the other one off. Souvenirs from this apparatus included tailbone injuries, chipped teeth, and crushed fingers

My elementary school playground was just like this.


Today's playgrounds are much safer, writes Mathis. They often have foam padding or a rubber mat to cushion falls. Slides are plastic. Are they just as much fun? He has his doubts.

Parks and gyms now offer parkour classes for children: They practice climbing and jumping, sometimes doing gymnastics. It adds back the element of risk.


“It’s taking something they already do anyway, they are going to jump around, and using it to teach character lessons, like, okay, we need to control our body. If you can learn to control your body on a rail, then you can lean to control your body when you have the impulse to poke your friend in math when you should be doing your test,” said Hannah Waddle, who teaches parkour in Nacogdoches, Texas.


My nephew does parkour. He broke his wrist.

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