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Is it just me, or do people die stupidly very often nowadays? It could just be that stupidity is more popularized when it leads to one’s mortality, or the fact that the more pieces of technology we invent to make our lives better, the harder idiots work to find ways to kill themselves with them. I’ll go ahead and go with the assumption that people are dumber than ever. They engage in stupid stunts like riding on the hoods of speeding cars, doing motorcycle wheelies on the highway, jumping from a hundred feet onto trampolines, and testing the durability of pet control devices/athletic equipment on their own bodies. These can lead to severe injury and even death…as well as many, many amused Youtube patrons, but that’s another matter entirely.

Are people getting dumber? More lacking in common sense?

I say no. What I attribute the reason for all of this self-destructive stupidity is neither unsafe machines nor a growth in morons nor a desire to be published on Youtube.

I accuse “playground deficiency”.

The modern playground is nothing like it was back in my day in the 80s and 90s. For one thing, it’s a lot safer. That’s something of a conundrum when you think about it. After all, the whole reason playgrounds were created in the first place was to provide a safe location for kids to play. And they were pretty necessary too.

Take my grandmother, for example. She was the daughter of peanut farmers in Tennessee. This is how children tended to use their free time back in those days:

“I finally finished my chores, ma’am (This is the South, after all.).”

“Alright, well…we ate a meal yesterday when we finally got done with the work. I guess we’ll sleep today instead.”

But occasionally they would get enough free time where they could sleep eight hours, get three meals in, and still have some time left over. Then they’d go and play. In my grandmother’s time and income bracket, they didn’t have toys or games or even the right sized loose sticks on the ground like I did back when I was a kid. So instead, they’d go into the woods, where the only toys were rocks and snakes. Neither of those would meet today’s CPSC standards of being “minimally safe”. So the country had to start building playgrounds.

Playgrounds evolved over the years. Originally, whatever field was being allowed to fallow would suffice for that year. Eventually, however, they had to give them their first official regulation: naming the field after a dead politician. This was important because if they didn’t do this, some unimportant politicians would never be able to die knowing their names were continuously said for years to come. Eventually they needed to give it light sources too when it was found out these were excellent places for gang activity that were in easy access of all local thugs and drug dealers…often with water fountains and public restrooms.

The biggest advancement, however, was playground equipment.

I can’t help but sigh after going to a modern playground and thinking back to my own days when I used to be on them, and how far we’ve come.

For example, since playgrounds are places where children traditionally play, all of the ground around the equipment where they are running and jumping needs to be somewhat softer than what they’re used to so they don’t hurt themselves. In my day, playground designers came up with an elegant, frugal solution: build your playgrounds on dirt where grass can grow. It was a fairly easy fix. Actually, it was a pretty nice one, since the unsafe alternative to build the playground on concrete made it more expensive.

That was fine when I was a young child, but as I grew, newer playgrounds were filled with loose gravel. Gravel provides an excellent alternative to dirt by cushioning the surface of the playground more than dirt but getting a child twice as dirty in half the time. They also made sure to use Magic Gravel, as those my age are well aware of. Magic Gravel has the advantage of being able to teleport into your shoes no matter how little you walk through it or how high the tops are. You can get it into your shoe just by looking at it from a distance of three feet. Even that wasn’t good enough eventually, and instead they chopped up old rubber tires into bits and covered the playground with that. Another cheap solution since tires never decompose, whereas the gravel would have eventually eroded.

Yet now, playgrounds are covered with essentially a big rubber mat, removing any chance of the child getting bits of it in their clothes, accumulating dirt, and making the ground of the playground as safe as a gymastics floor back in the 80s. (And you don’t want to know what they replaced that with.)

Then came the playground equipment itself. Back in my day, playgrounds were made of good old, 100%, American steel with lots of exposed nuts that were easy to cut yourself open on and get tetanus from. It wasn’t stainless, of course, which means you got to play the fun game of wondering if you’d be the child who would break the old, rusted playground bit of equipment today or if it would hold off for the next kid. It was kind of like the young child version of Russian Roulette. No pads or blocking of any kind. Life for a kid in the 80s was definitely cold, hard, metallic, and, if you were lucky, still retaining some paint from a job in the 1970s.

But by the time the 90s rolled around, they figured the steel equipment was getting too bloodstained and began to replace it with wood with recessed nuts so the kids couldn’t hurt themselves. Wood wasn’t a bad replacement. You have to hit it a bit harder on the dismount to ensure you break a bone, but a kid could get it down pretty quick. And to satisfy the people who were so anal-retentive of having no kids die on a playground, the wood would dent a bit if you hit it hard enough. Yet even that was insufficient because wood both rots and splinters. This led to something worse for kids known as “playground leprosy”, in which all of the various bits of equipment eventually break and are never repaired or replaced by the city. Naturally, the funnest things go first since that’s what everyone plays on.

The modern playground is made of plastic. All of the edges and surfaces are rounded down, the walls hollowed out for air cushioning, the metal portions and skeleton overlain with a rubber coating, and generally made so that a kid would have to intentionally throw themselves on a corner from a height of 100 feet before it managed to break their spinal column. The test child had to beat themselves on the equipment for four whole hours before they finally managed a sprain, and most children get tired and give up long before that.

Then, of course, the equipment itself. Outside of an amusement park, the playground was the funnest place on Earth because the thrill of potential death hung over you like a cloud of buzzards. In fact, there were buzzards hovering around looking for prey to devour the second a child went down. For one thing, it was near a lake, which was filled with mud, algae, frogs, mosquitos, and biting ducks along with everything else a kid could possibly want to ruin their new shoes and pants and draw blood at the same time.

Slides were there, of course. Only they were larger and more sophisticated since no one had done the study yet that showed if a kid fell from the top of a slide at a certian height they would almost certainly die. They also made sure to abruptly terminate so you’d have to quickly master falling or get ready to land on your face often.

There was the merry-go-round too. Not the goofy mechanical one with horses. I’m talking the spinning death disc with metal bars which provided your sole grip as you hung on for dear life while your older sibling spun the thing as fast as they could to see if they could beat the launch record of 60 feet. It provided an endless source of amusement because little kids, having recently graduated from being toddlers, still equate “puking” with “fun”, which means so long as a kid was nauseated they were having a blast. (Saved on video games.) It also enabled a younger and an older sibling to vie for power in a dangerous game. While the older one tries to spin so hard that they send the younger flying into the nearest barbecue pit (Yup…wouldn’t be a good dangerous playground if fire wasn’t incorporated somewhere.), the younger utilizes their only defense as centripal acceleration causes them to hang horizontal from the merry-go-round by kicking the older one in the face and dislodging some teeth. Ha ha! Loads of laughs.

Then came the see-saw. The real see-saws…the ones that were so big they could only be loaded with help of a six-foot-six adult. In my opinion, we need to bring see-saws back for one simple reason. Not just because they’re fun and deadly, incorporating not only the ability to break bones while falling but the danger of being crushed underneath the falling seat, but because they’re the “supreme equalizer”. As a child growing up in the 80s and 90s, I was the fat kid. The fat kid has very few advantages on other little kids. Almost all contests were decided in physical terms, so if you weren’t at all good at sports or athletics, you quickly became the person that all other kids compared themselves to in order to make them feel better about themselves. Intellectual ability is not impressive to other kids until you reach the age where it makes you a millionaire, so until you hit the age of 25-30, if you’re fat you’re out of luck. The see-saw turned my fatness into an asset. Now so long as I trick my worst enemies in class into getting on the see-saw with me, I have them completely at my mercy. That kind of rush can really make a fat kid feel like a winner, you know?

And last but not least, the jungle gym AKA Thunderdome, Jr. “Six kids enter…one kid leaves.” Nothing more than a complicated metallic cage made out of good, solid steel pipes, it not only allowed a kid to get to a sufficient height for a death drop, but provided an elaborate network of pipes with which to break multiple bones and fracture the skull in several places on the way down. And since it only had vertical surfaces on round, smooth pipes polished to a frictionless surface by years of contact from oily hands of children with lots of pipes nearby, you could get a serious injury just from falling from the first rung, especially if it was raining.

By comparison, the modern playground discourages all climbing unless it’s three feet into the air, surrounded by cushioning, and with the nearest object so far that a junior athlete couldn’t hit their head on it if they jumped in a lunge from the top. All mobile pieces of equipment are barely motile, padded, oversized springs. Slides provide a four foot “landing strip” so that you couldn’t fall off the end of the slide if you threw yourself down it headfirst. Swings, the last truely dangerous playground implements, all have lap belts and seat buckles with chains that couldn’t break if you cut them with diamond saws, as well as reduced heights so you can’t go for the truly epic jumps that would let you clear a full sized SUV. If that wasn’t enough, there are mind games and educational materials all over the playground for amusement instead of death machines.

My how times have changed…and not for the better. This brings me back to my original point. Why is it so bad that children can’t kill themselves half as easily on a modern playground, and how does that contribute to stupidity?

First, anyone who does extreme sports or even contact sports will tell you that the thrill of it lies in the dramatic exertion of activity. And there is no strong physical activity that gets your whole body into it that doesn’t involve the risk of pain or damage. Perhaps that’s what even makes it fun. The reason amusement parks caught on was because you were given the illusion that you could die…the thrill of fear. When a playground is a dull, padded, adventure in learning…of course kids are going to prefer their video games and cell phones to getting some physical activity.

Second, perhaps a good side effect of a dangerous playground is that so few kids did consistently get hurt. That was the idea. You go to a playground that has sharp edges and hard surfaces and uncushioned dirt so that when you mess around and get reckless you get some skinned knees, a bloody nose, or a sprained wrist…and you don’t do it again. You start learning the limits of your own mortality as well as what you can safely do to get away with so that when you get in pain from doing stupid things, you’ll shy away from them as an adult.

Third, you’re exploring what flexibility and stunts your body is capable of. Does anyone ever think part of the reason we’re not half as flexible now as we were as children is because we stopped getting dirty and rough and tumbled on dangerous playgrounds? Even sports like baseball, soccer, and football restrict people to certain muscle groups and ranges of flexibility.

Unfortunately, this trend is only likely to continue. I won’t be surprised if my grandkids get on a playground that is nothing more than a foam mat disk stretching for a quarter mile in all directions surrounding a gigantic nerf hemisphere. That doesn’t really stack up to going a few rounds of Halo with buddies online. Perhaps a bit more pain and injuries, as well as risk, is worth the price of some more physical activity. After all, whether you’re a child roughhousing on a playground or a parent who assumes the world should be safe-by-default rather than cautioning your children to make safe moves, everyone is going to have to learn to be responsible enough to not do stupid things at some point in their lives. If you do dumb things, you better be prepared to expect severe consequences.

Unless you’re M. Night Shylmalan, of course.

For some reason, Hollywood will keep giving him money to make movies no matter how much they tank.