Slowly Suffocating Imagination

I spend over an hour every weekday walking around a playground at an elementary school. In that time, four hundred kids, from ages 5 to 11 run the grounds.

Our playground is outfitted with all the usual equipment, swings, slides, monkey bars, climbing apparatus, sand to dig in, a concrete basketball court with six hoops, four square and even a kickball corner, a huge grassy field with four separate soccer goals and room to spare. We have boxes filled with soccer, basket and kick balls, and stacks of hula hoops.


And so today, as I blew my whistle for the fifth time in one minute and walked up to the second graders, my exasperation got the better of me. “Are you guys kidding me?” I asked in a not terribly friendly voice, “How many times have I talked to you about this?”

The boys looked uncomfortable and shrugged, wondering how much trouble they were in.

“What are our playground rules?” I asked.

“No tackling.” They all mutter looking at each other.

One brave soul starts to say, “Well, we were playing this game-.”

“Nope,” I said, not even letting him finish. “Go find something else to do,” I ordered and they scurried off relieved it wasn’t worse.

As they ran off, I looked around, searching for the next thing about to go wrong. I found myself catalouging everything I’d blown the whistle for today.

Standing up on the tire swing

Sitting on the highest top pole of the monkey bars


Pretending to fight with a sword

Pretending to shoot

Pretending to be a zombie (our zombies actually bite so it’s been a problem)

To get kids out from under the trees (we can’t see them well and it’s close to the fence)

To stop a girl who ran into a football game of boys and stole their ball

Lifting a huge graveled chunk of blacktop

Playing with a stick


Some may find this ridiculous but it’s what happens if we don’t do something that makes it ridiculous.

For years, I took my kids to the park after school and shooed them out of the car to play. I would sit and enjoy the silence, reading or talking to my aunt on the phone, while I kept a  casual eye on what the kids were doing. If one of them got hurt or scared, they’d come to the car. My only requirement was that they were in sight and the wide open playgrounds here easily accommodate that. They climbed and hung and slid and got dirty with abandon. Safe with mom, but safely independent.


It is this memory that makes me sad at the number of times I say no on the school playground on any given day. Sad that the only way they can use the equipment is in the appropriate manner, sad that there are specific ways they must play and interact with each other. As a worker in a school, I get the why, I get the responsibility, I get the liability. It just doesn’t make me any happier. After it’s all said and done, safe and appropriate is no way to inspire a curious mind.



0 thoughts on “Slowly Suffocating Imagination”

  1. Our children do not live in the same, safe world we grew up in. They can’t be children. We will reap what we have sown.

    Sorry. Not trying to be a Debbie Downer… it just is what it is.

    1. I think my children have had a better longer childhood than I had. Yes, they’ve had different problems but kids are as resilient as they ever have been, I think we’re (the adults) are the problem.

  2. I hear you. I also think that, as the middle class has fewer children, they tend to be more worried about them. Playground mishaps that would have been accepted as a matter of course as a side effect of childhood (knocked out teeth, scar on the arm, etc.) turn into a huge deal. We live in a world in which ideally, nothing is ever allowed to go wrong — as if this were possible.

  3. Interesting that you said, ‘ideally’ nothing is ever allowed to go wrong. Realistically speaking we have no more control over our world or what happens in it than we’ve ever had. It’s the idea that we should that I think is making parents crazy. They, in turn, make everyone else crazy and raise kids who don’t have the slightest idea what to do when faced with something unpleasant. I think we’ve commented about this on a collegiate level, yes?

    1. Yeah — it piles up into a sort of trained failure to be able to cope at the college level. It’s not that I don’t sympathize with parents. I was trying to explain this to someone last weekend. If your kid went to college in 1980 and messed up the first semester, he wasted $2000 or $2500. Now if the same thing has happened he wastes ten times that amount. And even if the kid doesn’t see what the consequences of that are, the parent will and will try to intervene. The consequences of something going slightly wrong are more severe now than they were when we were kids. You can ruin your credit rating for ten years in the space of six weeks and you will want to buy a house someday, after all.

      At the same time a lot of it is hype. Like this fear of letting kids be unaccompanied in public. Yes, some children are harmed. Horrible things happen. Statistically the probability of that is lower than ever, but of course if it’s your kid it happens to, it’s not just that you would blame yourself — but everyone else will tell you it’s your fault, too. It’s just easier to be over-protective than suffer the dual blows of self-blaming and general public opprobrium. (BUT: don’t get me started on folks who won’t let their kids out alone in public but keep loaded guns on the kitchen table of their houses. Sometimes public opprobrium would be appropriate!)

      The specific problem you cite is particularly troubling, though, insofar as the tendency to use toys of any kind in ways they were not supposed to be used is a key facet of developing creativity. Restricting that in the name of safety or insurance liability is fatal to the whole educational project.

  4. Yes, parenting is a minefield nowadays. Imagination used to be a wonderful thing, the problem we run into every day at school is kids can only imagine what they’ve seen. We have five year olds who know all the characters on The Walking Dead, who’ve played every M rated video game out there and their imagination is filled with only what they stream through their Ipads. It’s tough when the only things they can imagine are egregiously violent and not appropriate for many adults let alone a school playground.

  5. yeah, I can imagine. We also “played” characters on TV shows but it was more like Donnie and Marie or Mork from Ork (which we weren’t allowed to watch anyway for some strange reason I don’t remember).

  6. Lol, me either! Must have been really bad!I was always Escaping from Witch Mountain with my next door neighbor. He was Tony, I was Tia and we gave my tag a long younger sister the name Hershey. That girl needed saving constantly.

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