In my childhood of the 1950’s and 1960’s, pubic playgrounds were a wonderland for rugged kids, who found methods of using the equipment for which they were never intended. Stunts on swings, merry-go-rounds, seesaws, giant slides, and monkey bars offered hours of merriment along with bruises, lacerations, fat lips, chipped teeth, and visits to the emergency room.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year in the United States, emergency departments treat more than 200,000 children ages 14 and younger for playground-related injuries, 45% of which are severe. If it’s 200,000 now with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) standards being instituted as never before, imagine how many injuries took place in the old days of concrete surfaces, bare metal equipment, sharp edges, and “anything goes.”
But in between the squished fingers and dirty, autograph-laden casts, we had some high old times. At the public playgrounds, thrill-seekers were in their glory.
We’d crank up the merry-go-round, and when it was maxed out, we’d jump on till, spinning at top speed, we got so dizzy that we wanted to puke. Well, I did, anyway. After a few incidents like that, I swore off playground merry-go-rounds for life. I never again wanted to ride that red-painted monster with chunks of paint, lead-based, no doubt, worn down to bare metal by years of sweaty hands and bodies hanging on for dear life. I can still remember the lingering stench of rusty metal on my palms.
Sometimes, after reaching mach speeds, kids would jump off, trying to land on their feet as if it were an Olympic event. Some accidentally flew off. That’s when they became another playground statistic at the ER.
Tired of that, or more likely, staggering from wooziness, you might next descend upon a seesaw (known as teeter totter in some areas). Most of them in the 50’s and 60’s were unpainted wooden planks pivoting on a central fulcrum, requiring leg power and balance. But you’d be merrily bouncing up and down on a seesaw when, at the apex of your rise, your wise guy partner would suddenly and with mischievous intent dismount and leave you to smack to the asphalt with a wounded tailbone, pinched fingers, splinters . . . even crushed limbs.
It wouldn’t be a playground without “sliding boards,” as we called them, especially those really tall metal ones that had minimal sides to keep you from falling off. You had to do your due diligence before sliding those babies. On a scorching summer day, your legs could end up seared like a T-bone in Grandma’s cast iron skillet. With the metal heating to as high as 160 degrees, third degree burns could happen in seconds.
“Monkey bars,” as we called them in the Pittsburgh area, or jungle gyms as called elsewhere, were common at playgrounds. They were plain metal climbing bars, good for ten-foot falls by the unsure-footed and the show-offs.
But along came federal safety guidelines for outdoor playgrounds in 1981, putting a damper on the free-for-alls and emergency room visits that roughneck kids had enjoyed for years. The CPSC recommended replacing asphalt, concrete, dirt, and grass around and under equipment with loose-fill materials such as wood mulch, sand, and pea gravel to minimize head injuries.
I don’t recall seeing many changes in my area throughout the 1980’s. My two kids survived relatively unscathed, but my nephew Justin did not. One day in 1986, he slid down a firemen’s pole at a playground, landed awkwardly on the concrete below, and broke his ankle. The poor little 3-year-old had to spend six weeks of his precious childhood in a dirty and cumbersome cast from foot to hip. The diminutive fireman managed.
Due to an alarming number of injuries over the years and resultant exposure to lawsuits, more and more communities have been limiting the use of merry-go-rounds and seesaws at their playgrounds. According to the National Program for Playground Safety, in 2000, 55 percent of playgrounds around the nation had a seesaw; by 2004, that number had declined to 11 percent. Seesaws that remain are spring-centered or are installed with partial car tires or some other shock-absorbing material embedded in the ground underneath the seats or secured on the underside of the seats. The seesaw to the left looks safe, but what the kids are doing in the photo would turn the CPSC’s smiles upside down.
According to the CPSC Handbook, playgrounds should no longer use bare metal for platforms, slides, or steps. Most now use plastic or coated metal slides. Even plastic can get burning hot on a sunny day, so it is recommended that slides be located in the shade. Most have a hood or wide platform at the top to channel children into a safe sitting position before descending. Many are half cylindrical or tubular to prevent falls.
I have read on multiple sites that at public playgrounds, more injuries occur on climbers than on any other equipment, especially those with overhead “horizontal ladders.” Most injuries are due to falls, and the most common injuries are fractures. The CPSC handbook states, “Climbers should not have climbing bars or other rigid structural components in the interior of the climber onto which a child may fall from a height of greater than 18 inches.” The flexible climbing equipment below are more common at playgrounds today than are the old familiar “monkey bars.”
Of all public playground equipment, the swings cause the least amount of injuries. I haven’t mentioned much about them because I did so at length in “Our 1950’s/60’s Playgrounds: Joy Rides or Death Traps? Part 1.”
Here is a typical “composite” play structure of today. Katie (two years ago at 5) will give you a brief tour.
Some kids, like my grandson Mike, still manage to push the envelope at the playground.
My daughter Leslie comments, “The play structures may be safer these days, but I’m not sure kids are making safer decisions. My boys still climb trees and jump off ledges onto concrete. I’m actually surprised the boys have made it this far in life without an emergency room visit.”
Yep, some kids, especially boys, have it in their DNA to find ways to be reckless no matter what the era.
Many applaud the new playground upgrades that make their children and grandchildren safer than they were in the 40’s through 80’s. Others lament that playgrounds have become boring with few challenges for children. If kids are bored with playgrounds, that’s one more reason for them to stay in the house and play Minecraft and Mario Kart all day. I’m in the middle. Back in the 50’s and 60’s, if someone would have snuck into our playgrounds in the middle of the night and overhauled them according to CPSC standards, some kids would have been thrilled with the brightly colored composite structures, but some would complain that the playground was “sissified.” “Where are our big metal slides, our wooden seesaw, and metal monkey bars? It’s no fun for older kids anymore.”
Since my grandchildren were born, I have been to playgrounds in Pittsburgh, San Jose, San Diego, Houston, San Antonio, and a few other cities. I find that nearly every one of them has at least one unique structure that, back in the 50’s, we would have welcomed along with our blistering slides, dizzying merry-go-rounds, and daredevil monkey bars. Alum Rock Park in San Jose has a giant concrete spider to crawl on. Its legs are around 6 feet tall.
Donovan Park in the Heights area of Houston sports a wooden train with multiple cars for kids to climb in and on—around 7 foot tall at its highest point.
Here in Pittsburgh, Frick Park has “the blue slide” built into a hill, where kids ride down it on pieces of cardboard. We took our two grandsons there in June, and they spent a half hour there at the slide along with dozens of kids from 2 to 16 years old.
No playground near you? Whether in the 1950’s or the 2010’s, kids have always found unbridled fun in nature’s playgrounds. Seek and ye shall find.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.