The decline of the American lawn.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 2 2008 7:13 AM

Lawn Pox

Children's play equipment and the decline of the American yard.

Rachael Larimore and Maureen Sullivan defended kiddie lawn ornamentation in the "XX Factor."

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

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?

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?