As a child, one of my favorite places to play was at the playground at the end of my street, not far from my house. It was a corner lot with a merry-go-round, a swing set, a curving slide, a sandbox, and a large grassy area.
The merry-go-round was divided into triangular sections with a steel bar to hold onto along each section. Each triange of the wooden floor was painted a different color. On long, lazy summer days, we’d lie down in the different sections and use our hands to push off and keep moving. Then we’d start the game of Dropped it-Got it. One person said ‘Dropped it’ as they dropped the object – sometimes a stone or a marble or a handkerchief. Then the merry-go-round would slowly creak its way around, and whoever grabbed up the article would say, ‘Got it.’ The smell of fine dust and growing grass filled our senses, and the hot sun kneaded our backs as we daydreamed. If we happened to miss the object, no worries, the next person would get it. It was a comforting game with no competition, where the outcome was assured and the players were trusted.
The swings, on the other hand, inspired us to compete, to pump up as high as we could go, fiercely reveling in the rush of wind against our faces, joy filling our hearts as we sang ‘Let’s go Fly a Kite’ (inspired by our favorite movie, Mary Poppins). When our legs were tired and our arm muscles ached, we’d ‘parachute’ at the highest point possible, landing in the sand, and then measure who had jumped the farthest. We didn’t worry about getting hurt: we were invincible on the swings. We rolled to our feet, laughed, and went back for more.
The slide set, with its complicated stairs, handholds, and a curving, royal blue slide became a fort or castle. Once we convinced my sister A to get into a cardboard box that we had placed at the top, telling her that it would be the ride of her life. Unfortunately the ride did not go as planned, and A and the box tumbled over the side to the sand below. Thankfully, A survived with no more than a scare.
The sandbox, surrounded by a very low cement wall, was where imagination was freed to to build castles, tunnels, and roadways. In the winter, the sandbox filled up with snow which when packed down became a perfect place for a contained game of marbles. In the spring the snow melted, creating a lake to splash and sail small boats. Once when A was just a small baby, she fell headfirst into the water-filled sandbox. She would have drowned, but my sister K yanked her out just in time. It was the first time of many that my sister saved a life.
On long summer evenings, we’d run barefoot on the large grassy area, playing tag or kick the can with the neighborhood kids by moonlight as we enjoyed the cool, fresh air.
Last year I went back to my old neighborhood and discovered that the huge playground of my childhood had shrunk to a small, grassy lot and all the play equipment had disappeared. Although a sad, empty place now, this spot holds happy memories – a space where fun, relaxation, and imagination occurred, and we were free to be just children.