Last time we went to the Baltimore Zoo, I spied, over the hill in the park, an amazing climbing structure plucked out of my childhood and knew that at some point in the near future, we simply had to go climb it.
I grew up in the middle of nowhere, without any playgrounds (it’s okay, don’t pity me, I had my own creek and barn). However, my grandparents lived in New Orleans, which is the place that, to this day, somehow defines some aspect of “city” in my consciousness. There were many excellent city playgrounds there. Most memorably, around the corner from my grandparents’ house on Constance Street, there was a corner park with only one play structure: a giant pole with a bunch of red ropes stretching out and anchored into the ground supporting a large net of more ropes for climbing. In my memory, this structure was enormously tall and perpetually full of kids all trying to get to the top.
I’m sure there are many more of these out there, but until I spotted this one in Baltimore, the only place where I had seen another one of these climbing structures was during our trip to Paris a couple years ago. At the time, the kids were slightly too small to fully partake in them. The ones we saw there were also much, much more grand in scale than this one. They were closer to my memory of the one in New Orleans. As a single play structure, I think the design is just brilliant. This one has a bridge between the two towers, where kids can hang upside down and edge along. There are a million different ways to get caught inside the ropes and make your way to the top.
This one isn’t that tall, but I was still slightly amazed to see it. After all, those gaps you use to climb the rope are plenty big enough to fall through. A kid could absolutely do a dive off the top and get tangled in the ropes below before falling and breaking his arm or leg. This play structure doesn’t have the risk completely taken out of it. I don’t think it’s actually dangerous at all, mind you. I just think risk, or at least perceived risk, has homogenized and dumbed down most of our playgrounds. If you want to see some slightly more creative thoughts on what playgrounds could be, I highly recommend the blog Playscapes, which is full of some fascinating stuff, mostly from Europe, unfortunately.
All the proper experts tell us how essential play is in brain development in young children. Kids will always find ways to play, even without any playgrounds (or creeks or barns, at that). However, I really dream of playgrounds with better design and especially with more varied design. It would be nice if playgrounds didn’t all fit into one of just a couple different molds.