When the council took a much-loved piece of playground equipment out of Grey Lynn Park, the kids fought back.
Monkey bars – remember them? That moment you found the courage to walk upright on the top! And when you discovered you were strong enough to hold your own weight, swinging from one rung to the next, and then when you could do it by letting go between each rung. It was practically like flying, or at least floating. And all those times you just hung there, upside down, the backs of your knees hooked over the bar…
For girls, a rite of passage. Because, sure, boys play on monkey bars and girls kick balls around too, but when it comes to playgrounds, the monkey bars are a castle and the girls are in charge.
And what a castle it is. A place to push yourself to your physical limits, to grow your motor skills and your confidence. A place where you can find the strangest, most wonderful bliss, rediscovering yourself and the world and your imagination, just by taking the time to look at everything upside down.
Kids can do these things in lots of ways, in lots of places and on lots of equipment, although the upside down thing is surprisingly rare. But few other options are the primary domain of girls. Because of that alone, monkey bars are special.
So how come, over summer, the council took the monkey bars out of the playground at Grey Lynn Park? No, it wasn’t a health and safety issue. Monkey bars are still approved as play equipment for kids. No, it wasn’t a cost issue. They built a new playground and the new equipment wasn’t cheap. No, it wasn’t about complaints.
So, why? Playground designers thought better, that’s why. And council officers supported them, and the elected officials, in this case the members of the Waitemata Local Board, supported them too. Possibly none of them had floated or hung upside down.
But the kids fought back. Eight-year-old twin sisters Ila and Jaya Patel started a petition at their school, Grey Lynn Primary. “bring back monkey bars” it said, with a picture of a tree and the sun and clouds and a set of red monkey bars. “Sine name here If agree.”
Jett signed and so did Maia, Alice, Coco, Daisy, Scarlett, Pearl, Lulu, Lucy, Lola, Lyla, Ava, Beata, Amelia, Missy, Mimi, Sofia … also Jake, Elvis, Gus, Gilbert, Angus, Felix and Pedro. Mostly it was girls, but many boys signed too. All up, they got 210 names.
They complained to the local board, and the chair, Pippa Coom, went to the school, along with MP Jacinda Ardern, to hear what the children had to say. They told her the new play area wasn’t stimulating enough and children their age didn’t want to play there anymore.
Coom went back to the council and said they had a problem they needed to fix. At the April meeting of the local board, Ila and Jaya presented their petition. Ila had written a letter and Jaya read it out: it said the new play area was “only good for 0-5 year olds” and for children their own age “there is no other park close by that has equipment we can play on”.
She said, “If we get the monkey bars and other more challenging equipment that will mean that older kids can play on the playground.”
For the record, it should be noted that the new play area is not dull. It has an exciting range of stimulating equipment, imaginatively designed to create challenges while being mindful of safety. But Ila and Jaya are right: it’s for pre-schoolers. Children in their middle or senior primary school years will find much less to engage them.
At the meeting Coom acknowledged they had made a mistake. All the other board members agreed. Then things took a slightly surreal turn.
Deputy chair Shale Chambers told the girls that if they put back the monkey bars they might have to take out another piece of equipment, to make room. “Any idea which one?” he asked.
They were non-plussed. Eventually Jaya said, “Maybe the low climbing thing.”
Coom asked them if they thought the monkey bars could actually go somewhere else? There’s another play area on the other side of the park, focused more on older kids. Might they be better there? Chambers thought that might be a good idea but the girls weren’t sure what to say. That’s not what they wanted.
Coom moved the usual motion for when council bodies receive a petition, which is to thank the petitioners and ask council officers to look into the matter and report back. It was passed unanimously.
The thing is, they said, there’s no money right now to do anything about this. They made a mistake but they can’t fix the mistake, so it will go on the list for consideration in next year’s budget. That carries no guarantees at all, although the intent is clear.
Ila and Jaya left the meeting. They had won; the monkey bars will come back. Well, probably. At some point in the next financial year, which starts July 1, if the work can be squeezed into the budget.
Hey Auckland Council: just fix it already, eh?
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