Let us, please, have a moment of silence, for all of the Wooden Playgrounds that are no longer with us.

Our childhoods (well, those of us between the ages of 20 and 40) were shaped by the existence of these majestic works of playground equipment.

From the tiny token park playground, to the sprawling expanse of the ever present Elementary School playground, these massive beasts were the home of our fun.

Never again will we be able to play "Don't touch the gravel tag". Never again will so many splinters be gained for such a worthy cause.

Never will I shelter from the rain in a place so utterly dedicated to the rough hewn nature of kid-ness.

Running and tumbling across wooden playgrounds were perhaps the best moments I shared most with my younger all other times enemies, at this period I was merely the pupil, following in careful amazement as he launched himself across the wooden carcass of the playground, its bones and hide his eternal jungle, the realm of his mastery as we played, as we hid, as we captured.

What have they left us now? Tiny islands of metal and plastic, where no purchase may be found for scrambling fingers, where there is certainly no risk of injury...for there is no risk present or possible.

How can we play here? The tire swings are gone, the swinging bridges, the monkey bars...this entire sculpture of the epitome of fun has been stolen, robbed, killed in it's prime by the evil empire of responsible parents who sought to protect all of us from their deepest, darkest fears...and in doing so, robbed us of a measure of our dreams, and our memories.

We are indeed safe. But the fun we pass on to our children, our younger siblings, our nephews and a neutered, gray tomcat, a mere shadow of our former glories. They may have Ever Quest, but they will never know the glories we once beheld.

Heh. In my day there were metal playgrounds. Majestic 40 foot tall rocket ships--you could climb up the outside (not that you were supposed to, but I don't remember hearing of anyone getting hurt). Monkey bars, chicken fights (okay, lots of injuries there), huge, tall, jungle gyms, all made of good, god-fearing all-american galvanized steel. (okay, not the chicken fights) Wood? Heh.

Wooden playgrounds were for snooty upscale pantywastes. I bet you even had wood chips underneath. Or maybe gravel. Gravel? Packed earth was soft enough for us. So what are they now? Tupperware above packing peanuts? If that which does not kill us, makes us stronger, what does that which could not possibly harm us make us? Easy pickings for the gray aliens. An insidious plot to raise an entire generation that never had a chance to incur character-building injuries.

29 is not old enough to be this old
maybe it's just that Southeastern Michigan is still in the old days
won't go back. it's cold there

My elementary school in southern Michigan had a massive jungle gym made of large, darkly stained wooden logs. There was a slide, bridges, one of those wonderful fireman's poles, and a tire swing in the middle of it. We'd play tag on the wooden playground, and those who touched the wood chips on the ground were out of the game.

I remember Jason falling in the wood chips after one field day. I remember the day that Eli fell during a game, and split his forehead wide open on one of the protruding logs. I remember the day Amanda's arm got caught in the chains of the tire swing and was broken. The lunch ladies always fussed over us, but it was a waste of time. We always returned to the jungle gym.

Countless joys and countless pains were associated with that structure.

I remember going back to the elementary school to visit in middle school and junior high. I played with the kids during their recess, and though they were five years younger, they played the same games that we had.

Corey and I visited the school this past summer. They've got a near injury-proof plastic jungle gym up now. They've laid a basketball court where the wooden playground used to be.

Recess is dead.

Along these lines, I really dearly miss the yet-more-evil concrete playgrounds that graced my stomping grounds in Central Park and Riverside Park in Manhattan. If wooden playgrounds were the forests of the imagination, these were the bunkers; domes, pyramids, mazes, bridges and more, all made of industrial concrete. Perfect for skinning knees and elbows, splitting open chins and scalps when falling, and of course, hiding, seeking and playing Lazer Tag (the original).

The pyramids had handholds up the outside, daring you to climb them and perhaps lose your grip, sliding back down to the sandbox with your chin slamming into every handhold along the way. The sand would stay damp for a week after a rain, leaving a moldy smell in the tunnels that bored through the pyramid and led to the ladder to the top.

The bridge was a narrow slot running down a concrete oblong. You could jump off it into the sandbox.

I haven't been back there in a couple of years. I sincerely hope they're still there, although I have my doubts; the shelter they offered became popular with the Central Park homeless.

Update: Win! DejaMorgana reports that Central Park still has 'at least two' of the bunker-style playgrounds. The areas around the sandboxes have been resurfaced with the 'softer' rubberized concrete, but apparently the sandboxes and playground bunkers are still the same. Wonderful news.

We spent recess climbing on steel jungle gyms with rusted bolts, sliding down rusty metal slides, and throwing basketballs through netless hoops attached to near-collapsing rusted-to-the-skeleton backboards. The stuff must have been at my school for half a century. There were two standalone walls made from the giant yellow bricks left over from when the school was built. This is what the other boys pinned you to when they were about to peg your ass for dropping a bounce in wallball. Behind the walls we set fire to WD-40 and white-out while the cool kids smoked. Sometimes we had cherry bombs or other low-yield explosives.

We climbed batting cages. We played two-hand-touch nerf football in our school's playground, which was really nothing more than a giant parking lot for the nearby church. We played soccer, and dirtily. We slid on the small stones, cigarette butts, and broken glass. We tripped over pieces of beer bottles. We giggled when we found used condoms. We got cut, scraped, bruised, stung, and punched. We launched tennis balls, racquetballs, nerf footballs, kickballs, and shoes onto roofs and over fences. We balanced on bikeless, rusted bicycle racks. We broke arms, got the wind knocked out of us, and had asthma attacks.

The world of my childhood was brown and red and right and wrong, and life was short and brutal. Boredom filled the spaces between the glory and tragedy. I'd come home dirty, tired, and sometimes injured or crying. The boy that was created had a mind of hard, logical steel, a memory of slowly crumbling rust, and the emotional makeup of a scraped knee. True: some of the others didn't make it, but -- call me crazy -- I can't imagine wanting to grow up any other way.

Community built playgrounds are becoming very common in the small towns in the part of Oregon that I live in, and they are almost exclusively made of wood. They are fantastic structures, designed and developed by a company that specializes in working with community organizers and volunteers that lets the community raise the money, dictate needs and wants, and actually build the structures. The playground built in Brookings is made of pressure treated wood, has wood chips between the structures, and features 3 slides, a pirate ship, a castle, a regular swing set, a tire swing, a bucking bronco made of tires, cargo nets, firemans poles, and much much more. It was build entirely with community raised money, and built in 3 wonderful days by volunteers in the community. Small town America is still alive and well, and wooden playgrounds are just a part of it. Interestingly, the grandson of Norman Rockwell was one of the chief designers of our playground, which was named Kidtown by the children of the community.

Over these parts, wooden playgrounds are new-fangled stuff that my own kids get to play on, nice safe wood-chip floors and all. When I was somewhat smaller, the playgrounds of the villages of the Chilterns and the Vale were collections of hefty metal constructions, mostly painted in that peculiarly municipal shade of mid-dark green that, for townies, was also applied to the woodwork of park keepers' huts.

There were, of course, swings, and often swingboats (for which I could never find an appropriately dimensioned partner, but which the big kids made fly) and see-saws that gave fairly substantial altitude gain for small effort. The centrepiece of the equipment would be the big slide, usually just steps and a small platform, none of this integrated stuff with scrambling nets and rope ladders and climbing frames and whatnot, but a climb to ten, twelve, fifteen feet or so, and then a section out of a hyperbolic curve of a descent on a brass surface, polished bright by generations of brattish arses, that - unless the surface was wet, which spoilt everything - threw you off into the trench in the grass or mud carved by repeated impact. There were apocryphal horror stories at school about vandals - football hooligans - Arsenal supporters probably - who used to insert razor blades in the cracks between the sections, so it was mostly better to make sure that you weren't the first one down in any given visit.

But the true test of the playground was not this, but the roundabout.

There were a range of designs, but the basic principle was a couple of hundredweight of cast iron extending out five or six feet from the hub and mounted on bearings good enough that a determined eight-year-old could get it up to an interesting pace and a couple of ten-year-olds could pull about 2G. Some had narrow running-boards around a central box, some a floor all the way to the central shaft with radial handrails; a few had no floor at all, just four or six radial gates onto which you had to clamber as the beast gained momentum; falling off guaranteed you some pretty solid wallops as the rest of the gang passed over you, even assuming you missed the bars. Scooting, or running and jumping on at the last moment with the smaller ones hanging on for dear life to fight the centrifugal force, which, we were later to learn in Physics lessons, did not exist. My memory tells me that the direction was usually anti-clockwise, but maybe we switched to avoid getting too dizzy.

All gone now, a victim of the boom in accident claims, or maybe just an increased awareness of the laws of physics and a bit of common sense. Nothing else - except public footpath signs, perhaps - is ever that shade of green, though.

Watch out! There's a new plague on wooden playgrounds. Here in rainy Florida, some news channel started testing playground dirt for arsenic seeping out of CCA treated wood in the wooden playgrounds. Now wooden playgrounds all over the state are being closed off and probably soon will be ripped up. CCA treated wood has been banned in several countries, but has been used for 60 years in the US.

Meanwhile, we're waiting on a report from the EPA on exactly how dangerous this stuff is. I suppose it is pollution, but can you be harmed by it unless you eat dirt? (Someone in the news mumbled something about absorbing it through the skin, but this has been refuted by experts.)

At least one county has blown off this whole scare, saying that they re-seal all their wood every year, so the arsenic doesn't leach out at their parks anyway.

Several companies are scrambling to ship in pressure treated wood that is not arsenic based. Time will only tell if this latest safety panic will blow over or if they will rip out the playgrounds and replace them with new wood, or if the march of the plastic playgrounds is coming.


PS: I too remember the metal playgrounds. They had a different flavor, but were just as fun as the wood ones. A mix is nice.


July 12: The EPA is still dragging its feet, and says they might not have a report ready for two or three months or more. Meanwhile, several counties have decided not to wait for their report. Each city & county seems to be handling it differently: (list sumamrized from today's paper)

  • Lake: waiting for the EPA's report; parks still closed
  • Orlando: replacing soil and equipment
  • Tavares: replaced soil, applied sealant
  • Volusia: retested; they claim their parks don't have that much arsenic
September 26: Several more cities have replaced their CCA wood, with metal and plastic, a few with more wood. Many playgrounds have simply been closed, and nothing else has been done.

The EPA has decided to randomly sample the dirt in playgrounds across the country. We're still waiting for their report.

November 10 EPA has said their report may not be out until spring. Congress has passed a bill requiring them to report by Feburary 15. Meanwhile, about 20 playgrounds around the state of Florida remain closed.

An alarmist advocacy group called the Environmental Working Group wiped random wooden playgrounds with damp polyester and then sent the samples to government labs which found alarming amounts of arsenic. Their conclusion: 1 in 500 children risk bladder cancer later in lfe. My conclusion: you should wash your hands before you eat if you touch CCA treated wood.

December 13 The EPA has released a preliminary report suggesting that playgrounds can reduce arsnic leaching by 90% by painting CCA treated wood with polyurethane paint regularly. Hmm, where have I heard that before? They say they'll release their final report after further consideration.

February 17, 2002 Nine months after the original CCA lumber news panic, the EPA has finally given us a ruling on arsenic treated lumber. In summary:

  • CCA treated wood is dangerous enough to discontinue its manufacture by 2003, and discontinue new use by 2004.
  • It is not dangerous enough to recommend removing it from existing structures in back yards, campgrounds, decks, etc. or replacing contaminated dirt, as absorption of inorganic arsenic directly through the skin is minimal, and absorption from dirt even less. (Arsenic dissolved in water is much more toxic, and not that uncommon in drinking water considered safe.)
  • The EPA recommends that children wash their hands after playing on CCA treated playgrounds and food should not come in direct contact with CCA treated wood.
  • They recommend wearing dust masks, gloves, and goggles when sawing and sanding CCA lumber, as inhalation is the most likely way for arsenic to enter the body from CCA wood.
  • CCA treated wood should never be burned in open fires.
  • Coatings may help reduce CCA leaching from the wood, and should be applied on a regular basis. The EPA recommends penetrating coatings (oils and transparent stains) over films such as latex and opaque stains, as the latter may peel off over time.
  • New construction and repairs should consider non-CCA alternatives.
Their study is still not done--and probably will not be done for years to come. They say that they have not found unreasonable danger from CCA, but believe that "reduction in exposure to arsenic is desirable".

At the second elementary school I attended, Riley School, there was a gigantic (or so it seemed at the time) wooden play structure, with two towers connected by a walkway, a couple of slides, a multitude of swings, and a little jungle gym that seemed dangerously high off the ground. On that playset I felt I was king of the world.

And as Cid mentions, wooden playgrounds are not an extinct species. Here in Rochester, we have a couple. My friends and I play Vampire Tag on them in the wee hours of the night, sometimes with the owners' permission, sometimes without.

Plastic and metal playgrounds as the Safe New Thing?

Are they KIDDING us?

When I was a kid, I was terrified of plastic play structures. Hell, I still am. A metal slide from some all-wood playground may be a skin-scalding death trap at midday in the summer, but a plastic slide offers electric shocks and rug burns all year round. Then you run off and grab the plastic merry-go-round or the metal ladder and ZAP! A good wooden playground doesn't even threaten splinters, because it's been played on by so many kids that all the wood is polished by eight-year-olds' sweat and speed.

The community-built wooden playgrounds may actually be the newest trend, potentially superceding these monstrosities built of chemicals and politics. We had one in my home town too; it was called Rainbow City. It had a tire swing, two bouncy bridges, one of those wooden floors that move around when you walk across them, stuff to swing from, and a whole castle layout with towers and little passages and things.

Now if they'd made THAT out of plastic, they would have had to put some kind of sign up. "Warning: High Static Electricity Risk. Please remove all metal jewelry. Invalids, people with pacemakers, and very small children should avoid everything within a thirty-foot radius of this park. Any accidents incurred as a result of static electricity are strictly the park visitor's responsibility. Have a nice day."

Safety, my ass.

I was about to add a wu that I too had a wooden playground that is still up, that I spent many a day hanging out on. That years later, my tennis team was practicing on the new courts built in front of my old elementary school playground, and despite my coach's stern "No playing on the playground," a few of my friends and I ditched our racquets and initiated a game of tag that would have made our eight year old personas howl.


As I read this node, I started thinking about my old playground. About what it was made of... The swings were metal and what seemed like black rubber. The beams and supports and the wobbly bridge were all definitely wooden, as were the planks and walkways. However, the crawl tube, monkey bars, and slides were all metal or plastic. The colorful, "ouchless" kind that were as all have said, anything but.

"Was my playground wooden?" I asked myself as I read this node.

Of course it was, I decided. I have some fond memories of that playground (despite my near complete isolation during the elementary school years, scorned as a dork, a genius, a weirdo, the list goes on...) and from what people have been saying, its impossible to enjoy the new age style playground.

But then the truth came out. I reread this node, realizing that a certain write up had been written by my real life older brother, mmoin. He went to the same schools as I did, but his wooden playground had been torn down and replaced with a plastic one when he was 7. When I was 3. I don't even remember a different playground.

Maybe we're all hitting premature "Kids curse too much these days." The truth is, I loved the playground. The biggest playground I ever played on was the all plastic Discovery Zone (I tried going back a few years ago, and to my shock and despair, I was too big to go inside), and that was a paradise to me.

Its not the wood, its not the days of yore when parents didn't worry nearly as much. Its what you had, and that's why it means so much to you. The reason why the kids I see now still obsess over recess and their multi colored, plastic mold playground...

The one that doesn't even have a tire swing.

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