Kid Stuff #14: When Playgrounds Were Metal

click image to embiggen

Remember when playgrounds were fun? Sure, there was a pretty good chance you'd be scalded by a hot metal slide, or walk away with tetanus, but that's what memories are made of.

At my children's school, there is literally a sign that reads "NO RUNNING ON THE PLAYGROUND".  I swear I am not making that up. Plus, they've stripped it of all the "dangerous" playground equipment. There's no merry-go-round, no jungle gym, no monkey bars.... boooooring.  My kids literally do not know what a see-saw is.

And it's not just our kids' school. My wife is a teacher and she says it's like this in a lot of places.  She doesn't know the last time she's seen a merry-go-round. Kinda sad really.

I remember my school playground had a metal ladder "wall" that I swear went up three stories - it didn't connect to a slide or anything. It was literally a ladder to the sky - I remember thinking the oxygen was thinner at the top.  One false move and I'd have been a fleshy colored stain on the asphalt.

Maybe I'm a bad parent, but I'd let my kids play on a slide that wasn't fully encapsulated and made of soft plastic.  If they got cut, scraped, burned, or bruised, I'd give them a hug and let them go back to play - it wouldn't be the end of the world for chrissake.


  1. Oh man! The memories! I actually put my tongue on the monkey bars in the cold weather...yeah, that dumb!

  2. You know, eventually every kid is going to go to school wearing bubble wrap and a helmet. And the really scary thing about that is that they'll look back on that as "the good old days before things got out of hand."

  3. My 6 year old nephew's school still has the remnants of these: they still have honest to goodness metal monkey bars of several varieties, including the weird Erlenmeyer flask shape.

    I'm really surprised the soccer mom brigade that haunts that school hasn't had them ripped up.

  4. When i was a kid we had "The Tower" in our elementary school playground. The Tower was nothing more than a platform about 12-15 feet off the ground with ladders on all four sides to get up to the top. It could sit like six kids.

    One year around the third grade, (1982-ish) a kid fell off of it and busted his arm.

    Know what they said to the rest of us the next day before recess?
    "Be careful if you go on the Tower. We don't want another accident."

    No lawsuits. No trouble. Nothing.
    Just a clumsy 10 year old kid with a busted arm.

    Good times.

  5. Maybe that's why there is a childhood obesity "epidemic". The kids think the playgrounds are too boring.

    There's a small town close to me, that has a metal playground. Every once in a while I take my kids there and they miraculously live through an hour of play time there. Who would've thought?

  6. I used to play on that exact 'buck-a-bout' (never knew the name) at my local playground.

    Don't get me started on the lameness of current playgrounds! Children are unable to take risks anymore or set their own boundaries. I never attempted the 'BIG slide' until I felt ready. I truly believe this will have (and HAS had) consequences. I detest when they are referred to as 'Adventure Playgrounds' as they are definitely not adventurous.

    You got me started!

  7. You've only got to look in your local park to see the amount of kids on scooters (that's push-along scooters - wearing crash helmets. The world's gone crazy etc etc

  8. I have a vague recollection of one park that had sand, but every other park I ever played at as a kid had gravel under their potentially life-threatening playground equipment (funny how everything we all grew up has since been deemed hazardous). I always loved the merry-go-round... except the couple times I fell off and skidded across the gravel.

    A few weeks ago my niece and nephews sustained some minor scrapes from a slide at McDonald's. On one hand, it seemed weird that a plastic McDonald's slide could cause injury. On the other hand, it's sort of a rite of passage to get cut on your way down the slide.

  9. bucket swings with the metal front bar that got stuck on the chains when you pulled it down and snagged 3 fingers in the process.
    big kid swings made of hard fiberglass & chains. Older kids always ruined them by wrapping them around and around until they were a mess on the top bar. That or you got knocked in the teeth by one of the swings by another kid.
    We still have a merry go round and some metal park stuff here in North Jersey.
    Thanks for the post. And I didn't miss the 'embiggen'. Cute.

  10. Appropos of nothing, I just want to make a little comment on playgrounds and bureaucracy. This time, however, my family benefitted from said bureaucracy.

    About seven years ago, right around the time my oldest child was born, a brand-new playground was built just down the street from us, easy walking distance. I'm not commenting on the quality of the equipment; my kids love it. I'm commenting on the fact that it got built at all. They put up this playground because they had to. They were building a new housing development, and there's a zoning law in this area that says when you put up a new housing development you must put up a playground. The idea is to give the kids in the housing development a place to play so they're not breaking windows or letting the air out of tires, I guess.

    But the punch line of this true story is, the new housing development is a 55 & over community. No kids. But they had to build the playground anyway.

    I just love it when these absurd laws work in my favor.

  11. This brings back memories of the swing set from Sears that we had in the backyard. I'd have to hose the metal slide down with cold water in order to use it if the hot summer sun had been on it for a few hours.

    My guess is some parents are lawsuit happy and the schools are protecting themselves by removing the "dangerous" rides. Too bad everyone is so anal today.

  12. My sister-in-law is a teacher and they live out in the country. When the school took out the tall metal slide (you know, the one with no sides on it) she got it and put it in her yard. Her three kids and any visitors have gotten a lot of use out of that thing.

    When my oldest was in school (we now homeschool) they wouldn't even let him pretend sword-fight! PRETEND! There wasn't even anything in his hands! I'm SO GLAD we homeschool.

  13. We had a tower on our playground that was pretty darn high. From said tower was a zip line leading to the ground with a device that you could hold to ride down the line. I don't remember how many kids fell of that line breaking arms, legs etc. (at least one per summer) with no complaints from the parents.

    Ah, the good old days.

  14. When I was an elementary school kid in the '70s, our school didn't have its own playground. We had to use the public one across the street behind our school. The monkey bars easily went 10 feet high, and had black macadam(sp?) beneath it to break our fall...and our arms...or maybe a femur...

    Oh, I almost forgot: And we were THANKFUL! (grumpy old man rant over)

    Seriously, it was only last year that I realized my kids' playgrounds at their schools didn't have seesaws. A crushing realization, lemme tell ya.

  15. Retrohound:You just reminded me,
    My twin daughters were cowgirls last halloween & they made them leave the plastic toy guns & holsters home. And they sent home a flyer saying no scary or disgusting costumes for Halloween in school. No scary costumes on Halloween. That makes sense.

  16. AnonymousJune 02, 2010

    Your post today makes me think of a Maypole.

  17. I remember as a kid hanging upside down from the railing around the playground and then falling on my head. Good times.

    Several commentators mentioned lawsuits. I think the fear of lawsuits have the insurance companies pressuring the schools to make playgrounds safer. Our subdivision recently put new playground equipment a the pool. What they could install was very much dictated by what the Home Owners Association insurance policy would allow.

  18. I remember my school had a tower too. And a walking track. We used to all get some serious work outs. I had a metal swing set in my backyard that, every time you swung to high...the entire swing set would up root out of the ground! Our mission every summer was to try and get it to flip over at least once!

  19. We all loved the metal playgrounds, but how about the WOOD playgrounds? My area parks and schools were filled with these hazardously fun splinter-fests in 80's. The tweezer probably came out after just about every trip to the park. I think these were pretty much all torn down and replaced by the early 90's.

  20. The playground I take my kids to is the same one I used play on in the 70's. They just recently took out the last all metal slide and the merry go round last year. My kids were sad and so was I.

  21. When I was in elementary school we used to bring pieces of wax paper to school to wax the metal slide with in order to make it faster. I don't remember any teacher ever telling us not to do it. This was in the late 60's when little girls wore dresses to school most of the time, and you had to be really careful not to burn your legs. Tights were your friend, and probably made you slide faster anyway.

  22. Off subject, but along the same line, I can't remember the last time a saw a diving board.

  23. @mck: I was a kid in the late 90s/early 2000s and even I have come across wooden playgrounds. I was very sad to see basically all of them go, because they were my favorites as a kid.

    As for the topic of metal playgrounds, I don't remember seeing one since I was little, probably around 1995-97ish. Again though, I really loved those. I hated plastic slides because I would get shocked by the static electricity.

    I think I was probably part of the last age group to experience a lot of the "dangerous" stuff.

  24. I thank God that my school had plenty of metal monkey bars and other "dangerous" stuff. It's really sad that today's kids are so over protected.

  25. I am currently a 17-year-old boy in Tulsa, OK. Understandably, most of my playground experiences were with the new plastic stuff. Back when I was 4 years old I often went to Whiteside Park, which had a mix of fiberglass and painted wood. I remember a boy named Joe who used to be there many times… he could swing really high on the swings which were still the old chain kind (albeit with a plastic/rubber seat; and they were only 8 or 10 feet tall). AFAIK they still have the same equipment today, including the plastic 10-12′ straight and steep slide (not too many slides are straight anymore). Another park, Darlington, had and still has all-metal equipment (though it’s a really small structure). However, LaFortune is the one I want to write about here. As late as 10 years ago they had old wooden equipment (with metal slides and bars). I remember some very high monkey bars (maybe 8 feet?), a swinging bridge (had to be pretty small… maybe 10′ long tops), and 3 slides, each bigger than the other (top one was maybe 10 feet). Back in 2000 or 2001 or so they changed to new plastic equipment. At the time I was very excited since they had changed from a relatively small structure to two large ones. In 2004 I had the opportunity to visit a playground untouched by litigation-fearful government. My great uncle was about to pass away, and the family took a 1-day trip to Aurora, MO, to see him one last time. Apparently not wanting me to see him in his poor condition, my mom found a playground and told my dad to play with me there (I was 10 at the time). That is an experience I will never forget… there were an old-style metal seesaw, a metal merry-go-round, and a very steep metal slide that had to be at least 15-20 feet tall. Being accustomed to plastic all my life, I was at first afraid of the big slide. From what I recall I eventually got on it and loved it… as well as the other stuff there. From what I see on Youtube some places still have this old-school equipment… but they are mostly in other countries (Germany pops up a lot). After reading this article I realize what has truly become of society today. This is not simply a problem with playgrounds, it extends to all aspects of daily life. The American legal system is becoming too constricting to organizations, often doling out six-figure amounts for accidents that deserve more reasonable payments in the lower four figures (case in point: Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants 1994, aka the Coffee Case). Though consumers may think they are getting a better product from the additional regulations, they are the ones who are really paying for them. Thus the governments force unintended mandatory “insurance policies” upon the people… businesses have to pay more and skimp on the product to meet regulations, and the consumer ends up paying for a few people’s troubles in the form of increased prices or inferior products. Change needs to occur in the law schools before it can occur on the playground.

    Also, just something I'm curious about. After reading many comments on blogs, I get the feeling that kids back then were more resilient than kids today. Kids back then could fall four feet without it hurting much, and eight feet without getting more than a scraped knee, maybe a sprained wrist at the worst (and often these high falls of 10' or so were from the aforementioned Giant Strides). Kids in the old days used to jump from 10-foot barn roofs for fun, and one particular comment on another blog described kids purposely jumping down 20-30 feet to slightly inclined ground and getting little more than a sprained ankle. I don’t know how they did it… there wasn’t a secretly required Parkour class in elementary schools back then, was there?

  26. Watch any episode of America's Funniest Home Videos and you'll see there are still plenty of unnecessarily dangerous playground things out there nowadays. Before someone even gets on some of them, I think 'what's the point of that thing?!' Lots of potential for broken ankles, etc...

    Every one of the PTA or School Council or whatever organization that made this rule should be slapped hard in the face each time they dare open their mouths complaining that sodas and fast food are causing the obesity epidemic in children these days!
    If a kid can't be a kid (ie, act wild & silly & childish) when they actually ARE a kid, they're going to be wild young adults, driving recklessly, knocking up your daughters or granddaughters,getting over their heads in credit card debt in their early 20's, etc, and while it may be true that they should still be held accountable for their actions, the fact is that we are all born with some built-in childish silliness that we need to get out of our systems, and the natural time to do this is childhood, as the consequences are generally much less than if they do it in young adulthood.
    Also some may never grow up.

  28. I used to make the springs for the bouncy stuff . We called em "game time springs" Mill closed now. It was in Sharpsburgh P.A.