But an adult presence didn’t necessarily make it “safe”: Within a few seconds of observing, I watched one boy, wearing Crocs and holding a handsaw, step into a bucket of nails. He seemed fine, but a handful of nails spilled onto the ground—creating a “near-death trap” for anyone who ventured near the scene.
Leaning against the toolshed was a large green piece of plywood, on which nails had been hammered and tools had been hung. A sign directed children to “Please Ask for Tools,” but I witnessed several instances in which children fetched hammers and handsaws on their own. The children gravitated toward different projects around the playground—a broken bike, a dilapidated boat, or hideouts, for example—sometimes taking tools away from the toolshed area. (I watched one tiny boy, in a Superman shirt, carry a handsaw over his right shoulder while holding a construction helmet in his other hand. He traveled from one side of the playground to the other, wobbling over the debris, and I held my breath.)
For a few minutes, my son and I stood in front of the toolshed, captivated by the sawing and hammering before us. But when I nudged him to participate he refused, saying, and continuing to repeat, that he was scared. When I asked him why, he mentioned the children. Typically, strangers and risky situations do not intimidate my 4-year-old, but on this occasion, he looked paralyzed.
I felt conflicted. I got into this adventure playground as a writer, not as a parent. And given the male playworker’s earlier warning, the idea of helping my son get settled, as harsh as this sounds, didn’t seem right. It would go against the philosophy of this place, where parents aren’t allowed and kids are free to roam. Plus, how could I write an article about this adventure playground yet disrespect its rules?
I was also curious to see how my 4-year-old would adjust to this playground without my handholding. If I took the initiative for him (by fetching a hammer, for example, and showing him exactly where to pound the nails), I’d never get to see what he could do without me, and neither would he. So I suggested to my son what seemed like a reasonable compromise: My 4-year-old could ask Oulton, the playworker, for assistance.
My son immediately refused and continued to mope around the toolshed, and suddenly, my writing assignment had gotten personal: In this environment where children appeared fearless and playworkers seemed comfortable in their modest supporting roles, I couldn’t help but notice my son’s timidity. I started to wonder if I had trained my son, unintentionally, to let me take initiative for him, even when he was capable of doing so on his own. Then I heard a whimper.
Through his tears, he said angrily, “YES, grownups are allowed!” We exited the Adventure Playground and traveled to the Family Playground, where my boy stopped crying, and I proposed a new plan. With my foot, I drew a huge circle in the dirt and told my son that I would stand in it, watching him on this side of the fence, while he received support on the other side from Oulton the playworker, on his own accord. Initially, my son rejected this plan, but when I lifted the orange mesh fence, creating an opening for him to slip under, he reentered. My son trudged over the rubbish, right up to Oulton. Then he muttered something.