Finding community at the playground

Do you feel like you live in a community? Community comes in many different forms. Communities sometimes grow out of hobbies or interests. Communities also serve vocations. Other organizations are based on religion, which is further divided into two communities – the informal group of believers and the more formal group of those who make faith their life’s work. Temporary communities come together to solve a problem, change a law, or support a candidate for public office. Some communities—such as elementary or high schools and neighborhoods—are often neither chosen nor planned, but reflect a life stage.

Even though we now have internet-based communities like Facebook or venues like Zoom, we still have and need physical places where we can meet with others. Some communities focus on libraries that offer activities for children and discussion groups and even author workshops for adults. Fabric shops and family rooms might welcome budding seamstresses or quilters to learn together. Sports shops support the exchange of good fishing spots. Restaurants and bars that offer entertainment become friendlier when customers recognize the faces of regulars and share the table with new friends.

A group of grandkids were lucky enough to live just a block from a great playground. The playgrounds of my childhood usually offered a couple of swings; a curved structure like a rainbow unsuitable for crossing from hand to hand, and the playground spinner sometimes called a carousel. Only a few playgrounds offered all three. However, my granddaughters’ playground was something special. It had a castle-like structure occupying 50-60 linear feet of varying shapes with a bridge, towers, a slide down bar, three slides and a ladder. It was decorated with flat figures of knights and shields. Several smaller buildings surrounded it.

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Extended Hispanic families often came with multiple generations, music, elaborate lunches, and bags of sand toys. Once a frail and old black woman gathered her likely great-grandchildren around her and began singing in what could have been an African language.

This spring my daughter and her husband threw a joint birthday party for their girls. The party was supposed to be from 1pm to 3pm, but some families stayed until 4pm.

There was no theme and no structure. Just play. The kids loved it.

I started taking the older girl over there to the playground before she could walk. She loved and still loves to swing while the younger girl turned the park into her own training studio. They meet other children who ask, “How old are you? What’s your name?” Then they play. Encounters like this have happened every time I’ve taken my granddaughters there.

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The children come with one or both parents or with a grandparent or a nanny. Sometimes two mothers or two fathers bring the children, especially when the children are just starting to walk. One such couple placed their young toddlers on one of the low-profile wicker swings and gently pushed them while they continued their conversation. My older grandchild, who is gifted with daring, made another basket swing fly. I was watching the younger somersault on a flexible bridge when I heard a very young voice call out, “Wings! Wings!” Wing! Wings.” I turned to see the little boy pointing at the flying basket being propelled by my granddaughter. The toddler’s chant turned to “Mine! Mine! Mine” while his mother tried to explain that it was the girl’s “wing” and he had his own.

But both moms and I knew that as young as he was, he wanted to get the swing set to take off and fly, just like the big girl let “her” swing set almost into the sky.

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I was gathering my granddaughters to go home for lunch when the first raindrops began to fall. This was and will be the last time the girls and I will visit the park. The age structure, perhaps from the late 1970s, has meanwhile been reduced. A few days ago my daughter sent a photo of the girls digging a ditch in the sand. I asked if visiting the remains of the park was sad. She replied, “It was.”

There were things I wanted in life that I could never achieve, like a job as a book editor. No ordinary editor, but the next Nan Talese with my own imprint. I wanted to go to Europe with my children, not just once, but maybe twice and hopefully a third time. I still want to design my own home. And now I wish I had the funds to create a new playground, one that meets all safety standards, on the site abandoned by the former castle, that sparked children’s imaginations and created new friendships.

Susan Wozniak was a clerk, college professor, and journalist. She is mother and grandmother.

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