Children's play equipment and the decline of the American yard.
But, injuries aside, a larger specter began to haunt playgrounds, Solomon notes: "Told incessantly to be mindful of lurking dangers and the people who might inhabit the outdoors, [paranoid] parents often defer trips to public spaces. Going to a playground becomes too exhausting for a parent to contemplate." And so instead of a communal play space, each yard becomes a (rarely used) playground unto itself.
It's not just fear that underlies the American tendency toward elaborate play furniture. One parent-blogger recounted how his wife had purchased a massive water slide from Sam's Club. This led him to reflect that, once upon a time, only one house on each block had "the cool thing." "Today," he writes, "I live in a neighborhood where, if one kid gets a toy, everybody else eventually ends up with the same thing, albeit bigger and more ghastly looking."
Yes, it's the aspirational spending race brought to the lawn. Of course, it was already there, in the execrable outrages committed in the name of "outdoor living," the kind routinely chronicled in the pre-recessionary Weekend section of the Wall Street Journal (the Masters and Johnson of bourgeois anxiety): the grotesque waterfalls coursing over volcanic rock from Hawaii, the waterproof plasma televisions hovering over the pool, the backyard pizza ovens. But this impulse has spread to the short-pants set. How else to explain the ridiculous ensembles found at the higher end of the children's play equipment market? At Posh Tots, for example, one can purchase, for $122,000, a "Tumble Outpost" filled with ropes and swings and ladders, the kind that would sustain an entire playground but is meant for private consumption. Or feast your eyes on the capacious "luxury playhouses," like the "pint-sized plantation" known as "Oakmont Manor."
I have come to think of all these things, in both their lack of use and aesthetic alien-ness, as being symptomatic of the decline of the American lawn. I don't mean grass per se but, rather, the whole relationship of the house to its exterior; the meaning of the outdoor space as a pastoral enclave in a larger natural setting; the civility and beauty brought by the carefully considered arrangement of plants, trees, and shrubs—the sort of things one used to see in the so-called "garden suburbs."
U.S. Census Bureau data tell us that as American house sizes have grown (despite shrinking family sizes), the size of lots has actually shrunk. It is now not uncommon to see massive houses crowding to the very edge of their property line. Whatever lot is left is typically barren grass with a few random shrubs installed by landscapers (the lawn version of a bad hair-plug job). The scalped appearance of these lots is usually not accidental—developers often find it easier to cut down mature trees than to work around them.
And so then one sees it: the asymmetrical, triple-garage-fronted, architecturally confused house, towering over a lawn that's utterly stark—as if surrounding a prison so escapees can be seen—except for the assemblage of plastic junk and recreation equipment scattered here and there. Which is not being used, of course, because the entire family is inside the giant house, where the sounds of Nintendo echo off the high walls of the great room. The bright plastic begins to look like a memorial to the noble, dated idea of children playing outdoors. As historian Kenneth Jackson notes in his book Crabgrass Frontier, the shift to largely indoor living, accompanied by the much-reported decline of gardening and encouraged by everything from air conditioning (often now needed because houses seem to lack shade cover from trees) to front porches being replaced by garages, has left yards—when they even exist—curiously empty. "There are few places as desolate and lonely as a suburban street on a hot afternoon," he writes.
The unused plastic playthings and private playgrounds scattered in the barren yard speak not only to vanishing outdoor play but to a larger cultural disconnect from nature, from one's own environment. But there is a simple solution for this. Instead of buying cheap, potentially toxic plastic water slides and the like, plant a garden. Plant a tree. Plant something. It may not impress your neighbor, but it will last longer, it will look better, and it will have a better effect on the environment than plastic slides. And there is another benefit. In his book Second Nature, Michael Pollan writes touchingly about a hedge of lilac and forsythia at his childhood home on Long Island, N.Y. To the adult eye, the hedges were simply flush against the fence. But he had his own secret garden, a space between the hedge and the fence. "To a four-year-old, though, the space made by the vaulting branches of a forsythia is as grand as the inside of a cathedral, and there is room enough for a world between a lilac and a wall." He didn't need a plastic playhouse or an obscene mini-McMansion to find space to play. The natural world, when it is embraced, not only provides the opportunity for play—I imagine many of you, like me, have fond childhood memories of a swing hanging from a tree, or a tree house, or jumping in leaves, or running through the sprinkler as it watered the tomatoes—but connects us all to something larger and more lasting.
Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.