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Monday, August 09, 2004

The Privatised Park

Among last weekend's festivities was a trip to Ellis Park in Glenfield, built by Quakers for the good of the locals. As a kid I would spend hours down there, usually unsupervised, or be off building dens in woodland nearby. The woods are now 'new estates' (i.e. streets between 20 and 30 years old) but on the surface things haven't changed too much at the park itself. Sure enough there's a long overdue wooden fence to keep dogs from extruding their turds in the kids' play area. The youth club hut in the centre of the park, which in my day had a reputation for being 'rough', has closed down because of other kids 'terrorising' the regulars. The park equipment has also been subjected to what Kate Moorcock calls 'the dangers of safety in outdoor play environments'; farewell Witch's Hat, hello Rollercoaster - a tame device that is the complete opposite of its name.

More of a problem was the strange alienation expressed by most of the parents there that day (and I suspect it is little different any other day). Whereas in the 1970s any number of us kids would pile on the available kit and ride it until it broke - cheerio horse! Goodbye roundabout! - now parents prevent this from happening. Fair enough, you might say; it certainly prolongs the life of the gear. Instead parents supervise their offspring taking turns on each piece of equipment, grudgingly vacating it when another child lines up for a go (even on the see-saw, FFS). The idea of their children learning to share spontaneously with a minimum of adult input seems to freak some parents out. Yet some of the same parents had the developmental benefits of being able to participate in park life, probably at the same park, in a way that helped them become independent human beings. Denying their own kids the same opportunities is cruel and makes for a subdued and uncomfortable morning in the summer sun.

The same scene is repeated in public parks up and down the UK, parents shuffling from one climbing frame to the next steering their little darlings away from other children. They might as well concrete just over the parks. Parents alone are not necessarily to blame*, given the endless scare stories about child safety doing the rounds. But to those who say 'I'd never forgive myself if something happened to them', I can only say that something is already happening to your kids if you make distrust a central feature of your walks in the park.
*Maybe I'm overreacting and I scared them off by looking like a prospective 'beast'; readers can judge for themselves at this link (I'm the one eating a cob). You can also check out my new review article on Jhistory here; Dane S. Claussen's book is available from Amazon here.


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