I don’t think I really noticed municipal playgrounds between the ages of (roughly) 9 and 38, when we had our first kid. I just walked straight past them.
About a year after our daughter arrived, it dawned on me with a mixture of pride and horror that most weekends, I spent more time at the swings than at The Swan.
I realised a little time later that I even had strong opinions about the various neighbouring playgrounds and would discuss them in rather the same terms as pubs. “The one on John Smith Street has an excellent slide, but the one on Richard Road has a superb tunnel.” Etc, etc.
And then, slowly, I started thinking about the role that playgrounds have in our local communities. They obviously offer the opportunity for children to play; they are places to meet; they are places to make friends (for both grown-ups and little people). And, much like the best pubs, they are utterly classless and are completely free to access.
But now they’re gone (at least for the moment). For this father of small children, their absence leaves the most enormous hole in my life and in the lives of my family.
We are lucky enough to have a little garden (with a plastic wendy house and a plastic slide), and yet, in normal times, pretty much every free afternoon includes a run out to the park. Sometimes, we plan to meet friends; other times, the kids would make new friends (and often we, therefore, make new nodding acquaintances). Whatever the weather, we head out.
These days, more often than not, we head to the rec next to the playground for our daily allowance of exercise. The trip invariably involves a tricky chat with the four-year-old in which I attempt to explain why the swings are taped off.
But for other families, the playground isn’t a pleasant supplement to the garden – it is the garden. Many young people grow up without any outdoor space at all. For these children, the municipal playground is the only safe place they can go to for some fresh air and a run around. Never, ever, has fresh air and a run around seemed such a profound human right as it does today.
The importance of outdoor play in the way our youngest children develop and experience early education has become a common educational refrain in recent years. For many of our urban children, their experience of this takes place in two places: in school and at the local park. Both are currently closed.
There have been a few occasions in the past couple of weeks when I’ve been infuriated by the parents who have allowed their kids to break into our neighbourhood swings (it makes the aforementioned conversation with the four-year-old much harder). But, in truth, if I had no garden and a space-limited flat, would I have the heart to stop my children playing?
There has been some talk this week about whether we should reopen schools sooner than had previously been suggested. Perhaps playgrounds should be included in that conversation too.
Joni Mitchell once famously sang: “You don’t know what you’ve got 'til it’s gone”. For me, right now, she could have been singing about the swings just around the corner from my house.
Picture credit: Joe Hallgarten