I spent part of today in a playground. It was a fairly worthy variation – everything made of timber, bark chippings underfoot, National Trust parents closely chaperoning their children’s every move. ‘National Trust parents’ isn’t intended as some class-based slur – the playground was at a National Trust property – though I guess the term does capture something of that characteristic blend of perceived hearty good fun, anxiety and awkwardness.
Anyway, I was watching my daughter perform laborious circuits of some kind of fortified slide/viewing platform and it struck me how much more enjoyment she seemed to be getting from the whole playground experience than I ever did.
As a child I saw playgrounds primarily as the places where my chances of being beaten up were at their highest. This wasn’t paranoia, mean kids loved hanging out in parks: kids who went to other schools and would throw stones at me, or try and bounce me off the end of the seesaw, or hijack me on the roundabout spinning me faster and faster until I threw up. But even when the playground was empty, or when I had my mom with me the experience was never really joyful, because nothing there was that much fun.
I suppose the slide was the best. A straightforward ascent, a small whoosh on the descent. By the age of 6 or 7 though this had palled a little. Sometimes the slide didn’t even work – some combination of anorak nylon and damp metal would put the brakes on the descent and I’d find myself shuffling rather than flying downwards. I was conscious also that by then I should have developed some more advanced slide tricks. I suspected that using a slide when you were 7 was only really acceptable if you went head first and this was something I could not do. I would stand at the top of the ladder, trying to pluck up courage to pivot over the apex on my tummy but all I saw was my body flying off the end of the metal chute, my face skidding along the tarmac, the raw flesh providing perfect sticky purchase for a mask of grit. Inevitably I’d give up and perform the ungainly manoevre of bringing my legs underneath me, sitting on my bottom and sliding down, experiencing none of the old thrill just a mild sense of shame and defeat.
Swings were less fun. I could at least use a slide unaided, but I was unable to get a swing moving by my own momentum. I knew the theory. My mom would give me a few pushes to start me off and tell me to keep my legs tucked back as I went back and then straight out in front of me as I swung forward. What she never emphasised was that it was the transition between these two that really mattered, the energy injected into the kick back or forward that cranked the swing higher and higher. I thought position was everything, carefully tucking my legs beneath me and then gently, gracefully extending them out in front of me, all the while feeling the arcs diminish. I’d grind to a halt, my mom would look at me, I’d ask her to explain it again.
Climbing frames had a lure for me as a child similar to the lure of a window pane to a fly. I was powerless to resist their pull, sensing happiness within my grasp, only to find myself minutes later clinging to the bars, trapped and confused. Climbing frames fooled me every time by presenting their friendly face first. A ladder leading up – what could be more simple? What could be more enticing? I’d skitter across the tarmac, pull myself up by the rungs and up and up and …then that familiar sense that things were going wrong again.
What I never really grasped as a child was that a climbing frame in which you only climbed up wasn’t really feasible. What I wanted was an infinity ladder with a giant slide or hovering helicopter at the top to return me to earth. What I got instead was the nightmarish prospect of having at some point to climb sideways or downwards.
Climbing frames of the 1970s came in various shapes and sizes. There were neat 3D grids; strange igloo-like structures with shiny sides and poles down the middle; multicoloured activity centres with footholes in sheets of metal; the most basic and prevalent though was the simple arced ladder – semi-circle of steel with both ends anchored in the ground as if the circle continued under the tarmac. Whenever I think of climbing frames it is always this structure and more specifically an image of me paralysed on the fourth rung that comes to mind. As the frame curved around I would consider my options. I could continue forward over the hump of the summit and then find myself somehow having to negotiate the descent head first. I could attempt to perform the dangerous manoevre of turning around whilst at the very summit of the structure, where a fall would cause the gravest injury. Or I could attempt to somehow get from the outside to the inside of the frame and negotiate the top rungs hanging beneath the bars, before presumably having to climb back to the outside to finish the descent. Aside from fear and embarrassment my overriding feeling was of simply being in the wrong place: I was facing forwards and I should be facing backwards, I was on the outside and I should be on the inside. I thought there must be a solution. I realise now that there wasn’t. I was trying to battle geometry and I would never win. The angles would always beat the child.