A rant about playgrounds, sun protection, and parent-shaming

Playgrounds without shade are a problem. That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. Here Jacquelyn Collins lays waste to jerks who have no reason to attack mothers fighting for better playgrounds. 

Recently a group of Otago University researchers revealed what most parents already know: most playgrounds lack adequate shade. The researchers recommended planting trees with sufficient canopies to provide shade, and building proper structures to shade play equipment.

Well, Facebook commenters lost their minds at this news. A lot of comments come from older people, because they’re passionately invested in the quality of playgrounds for modern children, and the general theme was that modern parents (and I really mean ‘mothers’, because we all know that fathers who take their kids to playgrounds are certified superheroes) are lazy and stupid.

Three card-carrying Old Mates – Hayden, Douglas and Donald – took a break from complaining about immigrants and debating who should coach the Blues to offer their perspectives:

“Our playground in my day had an old wooden slide, which didn’t slide, a swing with one rope longer than the other, and a jungle gym, with hard dirt if we fell off. I can’t recall any of us dying. Now they want covers. Next, they’ll want to operate the swings from their smart phones…”

“The poor wee things..fancy mummy not dressing them properly go be playing outside in the fresh air…”

“You won’t believe this life hack… when you go outside wear a hat and sunscreen.”

Judging by their profile pictures, these three dinosaurs probably roamed the earth in a pre-playground era. I’m doubtful that they’ve ever taken their children or grandchildren to a playground. They’ve got no reason to read playground-related articles and comment on them, other than to bitch about modern parents.

If they took a minute to actually visit a playground, they’d see that most children who visit them are wearing hats and are covered in sunscreen. That doesn’t stop play equipment from becoming unusable when it’s too hot. In fact, if they visit a playground around midday onwards throughout the summer, they’ll see that many are empty. Children have suffered burns from hot slides and swings.

Try telling that to Jason, though. Jason lives in Dunedin – a city notoriously blighted with hot, sunny weather – and he kept it simple with this pithy one-liner:

“How we survived in the 60 70 80s is a mystery.”

Well, Jason, let me see if I can help you better understand the mystery of how you and your ilk survived. For starters, the huge hole in the ozone layer above New Zealand wasn’t an issue then. Also, life has changed for Kiwi kids during the past 50 years.

In the decades Jason mentioned people lived in the same place for longer, most mothers were housewives, and there was a lot less road traffic. For kids, the main source of entertainment was playing outside. If we weren’t at school or asleep, we were either outside, playing, or being told to go outside and play. Our parents weren’t terrified by a 24 hour news cycle telling them that child molesters hid behind every tree, and because of the stability in our neighbourhoods and suburbs, people tended to know each other, which increased their confidence that we could run around without coming to any harm. We rarely went to playgrounds, because we didn’t need them – the whole world was our playground.

We don’t live in that world anymore. Traffic is the biggest issue stopping parents from letting their kids loose outside, but people are also more paranoid about strangers, and this is reinforced by reduced levels of community stability and trust. Ideologically, it’s not normal to send children to play outside unsupervised, and if you’re the brave parent who tries it you’ll be judged as neglectful.

But hey, maybe I’m way off base, and the guy who wrote this comment knows the score:

“60s, 70s, 80s parents thought children should be playing outside on a sunny day at 4:30pm. Today’s parents think children should be playing outside on a sunny day at 12:00pm. The 60s, 70s, 80s were different because parents knew the right time for their children to play outside on a sunny day. Today parents just don’t care.”

This raises so many questions. What does he think our parents did with us for the rest of the day? Who were all those kids we played with? Were my parents simply ahead of the times, ‘just not caring’ several decades before modern parents?

Of course, we modern parents only demonstrate our caring by trying to constructively improve spaces designated for children, which is obviously a lot easier than doing what past parents did. We are so lazy.

He’s wrong, by the way. We were outside ALL day. And we paid the price – even with the ozone layer in better shape, I was constantly sunburned. My nose was pink and peeling for half my childhood.

Some older women took a break from frowning at their daughters-in-law and spamming their families with Farmville requests to remind modern mothers that they’re stupid and hopeless.

Here’s Jill: “Ffs. Get real !!!!! Let’s have them sit inside all day on a device. … SUN IS GOOD FOR YOU we all NEED vitamin D. what expert came up with this theory? ?? 4 years at university to reach this conclusion. What ever happened to COMMON SENSE People deciding what’s best for themselves?”

Crap Debating 101: Disagree with an argument by taking the most nonsensical extreme opposite view. There are only two options for children’s leisure: Go to a blazingly hot unshaded playground or sit inside all day on a device. And throw away your sunscreen, because SUN IS GOOD FOR YOU. Forget what the Cancer Society has been telling you.

Lyn was 100% on Jill’s wavelength: “So let’s put shades over all rivers and riverbanks, all grassed areas of parks and playgrounds, swimming pools, all the beaches and oh let’s not forget all our roads and footpaths!!!!!!!!”

This pearl-clutching ‘you want to child-proof the universe’ theme is a common one when parents ask for better playgrounds. I started a project called Kiwi Play Safe in 2016, to try to get fences around some of the playgrounds built near busy roads, open water, or parks with dogs roaming free, to keep kids safe from those hazards. Stuff ran an article about it, and the comments were every bit as idiotic as you’d expect.

“Why don’t you just wrap them in cotton wool and then a layer of bubble wrap over the top?  Otherwise, you could teach them to listen to their parents, but you know, that takes effort…”

“Yes let’s fence the beaches too and fence the rivers and let’s fence off all the roads and let’s fence off…”

This is a great point. I’m going to follow it through to its logical conclusion, and remove all risk protection from my children’s life. Who needs car seats anyway? And so what if removing the railing on our balcony could result in a five metre fall to a concrete path? And abandon your plug protectors – how else will your kids learn not to electrocute themselves? Harden up, kids!

It was also good to hear that the problem wasn’t the positioning of facilities for young children right next to busy roads. The problem was me: “It means you have to watch your kids not let them play and you play with your phone. Take some responsibility.”

Oh! That’s where I was going wrong! You see, I took my young twins to playgrounds and completely ignored them. I’d misunderstood the problem I was facing at unfenced playgrounds. I thought the issue was that young children move unpredictably and don’t follow instructions about staying close. Being just one person, I thought I faced problems because I could be helping one kid out of the swing when the other one did a runner, or because both kids decided to scamper off at once, but in opposite directions.

But I see now that I was wrong. I should just get off Facebook. Never mind that I might have PND and be texting my Plunket nurse. Never mind that I might be working from home and just sending a quick email to a client. Never mind that I might have had no sleep for the past 24 hours because of my children, and really need a quick online chat with a friend to stop me from leaving the kids on a park bench and catching the next bus out of town. Never mind that I’m an adult who likes to have contact with other adults occasionally. I forgot: I’m a MOTHER! My whole life should involve being within touching distance of my kids at all times!

Except, of course, that makes me a helicopter parent. That’s terrible. Why won’t I let my children live?

“How about keeping an eye on your kids instead of wanting the tax payer to pay for your lack of supervision.”

Yes, you’re right, I should just avoid all of the playgrounds near roads. I mean, my tax money and rates help to pay for them, but I shouldn’t ask for them to be fit for purpose.

Our public money is being invested in community facilities that don’t represent a good return on investment. A lack of shade means playgrounds are underused. A lack of fencing at certain playgrounds mean many families can’t enjoy them. This doesn’t seem like a great use of resources to me, but what would I know? I’m a mother, and I’m obviously an idiot.

Parents who are willing to fight for good community facilities should be celebrated, not criticised. Maria Foy from Happy Mum, Happy Child has agreed to add her campaign for more playground shade to my existing Kiwi Play Safe project, and together we will push for better playgrounds for Kiwi kids. We’re happy to discuss this with councils and relevant experts to find good solutions.

If you don’t use playgrounds, don’t worry about it. But, please, spare us your thinly veiled judgement of modern mothers.

Jacquelyn Collins is an Auckland-based mother of five year old twins. She combines motherhood with life as a full time Urban Planning student in her Honours year at the University of Auckland. She also campaigns for safer playgrounds at Kiwi Play Safe and starts new blogs on regular basis – the most recent one being Kiwi Café Kids.

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