Children's play equipment and the decline of the American yard.
The next time you drive down a street in suburban or exurban America, pay careful attention to the yards. Lurking somewhere, either peeping out from the back or nakedly displayed right in front, some form of children's play equipment, typically in plastic and typically in some bright primary color, will probably be splayed on the grass.
I'd like to raise just one question about this picture of domestic bliss: How often do you actually see a child playing on, or near, one of these devices?
On a recent weekend trip through a posh Connecticut suburb, the kind with moss-covered stone walls and dense canopies of mature trees, I was dismayed to find the sylvan harmony of the scene constantly disrupted by garish blights, from wavy slides to inflatable contraptions of the kind once relegated to seasonal carnivals. It was as if a McDonald's PlayPlace—some alien, mother-ship PlayPlace—was spawning its miniaturized brood across the landscape (and simultaneously vaporizing the kids).
The Web site of Little Tikes—which boasts an American flag banner noting that some of its polycarbonate products are "Made in the USA" and then, just below, slightly less triumphantly, "or Made in the USA with US and Imported Parts"—offers a representative field guide to this kiddie sprawl, listing such injection-molded contraptions as the "Endless Adventures Slide & Hide Tower" and the "6-in-1 Town Center."
The phrase "fun that lasts" pops up often on the Little Tikes Web site, as if the manufacturer were trying to allay the suspicion of the purchasing parent that the giant red, yellow, and blue elephant he or she is buying will soon be nothing more than a mowing obstacle. For parents were once children, and they know the iron law: The more time spent in assembling a toy, the less it will actually be used. (A corollary: The packaging is inevitably more interesting than what's inside.) My sister-in-law reports that each year, her upstate New York town's annual "cleanup" day produces a massive haul of slides, swings, tubes, and tunnels, all of which seemingly have half-lives of one weekend and swiftly find themselves headed for the landfill.
The environmental implications alone—each piece of equipment must represent a lifetime's worth of plastic shopping bags—are reason enough to eschew this stuff. Then there are the aesthetics. On this, I'm hardly alone in my displeasure. In her account of the perils of suburban gardening, Paths of Desire, Dominique Browning recounts how a new neighbor installed an enormous swing-set with a plastic slide facing her house: "Obviously, I had developed an exaggerated aversion to the plastic; I'm the first to admit it. But brightly colored plastic (and who decided kids enjoy these colors anyway?) in the garden is one of my peeves." Or, as one blogger more bluntly put it, "The only thing worse than a neighbor with fifteen different pieces of play junk in his front yard is a neighbor with fifteen different pieces of insanely brightly colored play junk in his front yard."
Before you dismiss such complaints as mere aesthetic snobbery, consider another of Browning's pet peeves: "Why [does] every yard have to replicate the same debris, swing after swing, marching down the backs of the houses?" Her question highlights a few larger problems with this seemingly benign landscape element. The first is the decline of the playground. In her book American Playgrounds, Susan Solomon notes how the fear of injuries and their litigious consequences forced the closing, or banal "post-and-platform" retrofitting, of many playgrounds. Gone are the kinds of things that defined my own childhood: terrifying metal "monkey bars" pitched over a pit of hard gravel or the towering, twisting, all-metal "tornado slide," as we called it, which was at once the most exhilarating and the most dangerous thing in my young life.
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.