Monday, July 7, 2014
Rings Over the Abyss: On Differences between Italian & American Playgrounds
The unveiling at the beginning of last week of a large new piece of playground equipment in the park on Sant'Elena where Angelina and Brad used to take their kids during the filming of the dull movie The Tourist reminded me once more of some significant differences that remain between Italian and American life, in spite of the homogenizing influence of a global economy and mass corporate culture.
Well, it wasn't literally "unveiled". For the weeks it took to put the play structure's many logs together, it was only partially obscured by opaque construction drapery hung irregularly upon its chain-link fence enclosure. You could peek in and watch it take shape, as many small kids impatiently did, and the only real suspense for Jen and me in recent days as it approached its final form was wondering when exactly the builders would realize their glaring error.
After all, it was a mistake so obvious as to be comical in a perverse Addams Family kind of way, in which humor lies in the hearty approval the two young Addams kids receive from their parents for playing with the most lugubriously dangerous "toys," such as a real full-scale guillotine.
For Jen and I agreed--in a shared assumption that revealed our American origins even more clearly than the accents of our spoken Italian--that the blueprints certainly did not (could not) dictate that a series of steel rings along which a hanging child is supposed to propel him- or herself be suspended from their short chains at a great height. The distance from the rings to the ground had to be at least 8 1/2 feet (2.6 meters), meaning that for a five year old of, say, 3 feet 7 inches (110 cm) in height, dangling from fully extended arms, the drop would be about 3.5 to 4 feet (1.2 meters)!
At the age of 18 I sprained my ankle and tore ligaments while turning it from a shorter drop.
Yet when the chain-link barrier was taken away, there were those rings just where we'd marveled at them all along, gleaming in the sun above an ankle-breaking abyss.
In Park Slope, Brooklyn, where we used to live, there would have been 150 lawsuits filed over those rings while the chain-link enclosure was still in place ("reckless potential endangerment"). There would have been outraged flyers taped to the front door of every neighborhood building and a tsunami of indignant posts that would have knocked out the message board of the website Park Slope Parents. When a new bike lane was put in on the street running along one side of the neighborhood's vast Prospect Park--it's a long story, but, yes, a bike lane--the reaction was so rabid that an outside observer might reasonably have assumed it was in response to the city's plans to set up the old Chernobyl nuclear facilities within the park itself and see if a little NYC know-how might not get better results from them.
Here, however, no one even seemed to notice the height of the rings.
As I passed by the park one afternoon right after the play equipment was open to kids I happened upon a Venetian friend there with his 19 month-old son. "Quite a piece of equipment," I said, gesturing toward the new construction. He nodded.
We stood just a few feet from the rings and I pointed to them and asked, "Do those seem a little high to you?"
"No," he replied.
"In America," I told him, "they'd never be allowed in a playground. They'd be considered much too dangerous."
He looked truly shocked by this. "Too dangerous?" he asked, disbelieving. I nodded. He made a face that suggested there was no end to how absurd people might be, then after a couple of moment's thought, said, "But the kids will figure out how to deal with them."
When I got home I found that Jen had had a similar conversation that afternoon with another neighboring (Italian) father. He, too, couldn't believe that the the height of the rings would make them too dangerous for an American playground. So, as an alternative explanation for their prohibition, Jen told him about all the lawsuits that would inevitably arise from them.
He found this even more impossible to believe. "But why," he replied, "would a parent file a lawsuit against the city or park when it was the parent who allowed the child to play on them? How could they possibly win such a lawsuit?"
There was no simple answer to such questions. Where even to begin? A historian of liability law could have explained every one of the landmark judgements that led the way to America's present attitude towards things like playground construction and our neighbor would still--for all his new knowledge--reasonably have responded, "Okay, but why? ("Va ben', ma perchè?"). Jen didn't waste her time or his, she had no illusions of bridging such a vast gulf. She simply shrugged.
Of course one of the oddest things about this different perspective on playground equipment is that Italians are not exactly easy-going when it comes to raising their kids. If certain Americans (of a certain class) have been labeled "helicopter" parents for the way they relentlessly hover over their children's lives, I've sometimes found myself thinking that certain Italians might be termed "shroud" parents.
Influenced perhaps by their country's all-pervasive but often empty ideal of freedom, even the most controlling American parent tends to pride him- or herself on being rather "hands off". The American parent hovers elusively ever-present as a drone, but trusts that constant surveillance, unceasing coercion and an obsessive control over the child's surroundings will usually (though not always) save him or her the trouble of actually striking.
Italian parents, or grandparents, on the other hand, can quite literally be all over a child. Don't sit down in that sand! Stay on the sidewalk! Put your arms into this jacket I'm forcing onto you [as a small cloud passes momentarily across the sun]! Don't even put a toe into the sea until 3 hours have elapsed after lunch! As the product myself of many years of Catholic education I sense the presence of the Church in this insistence on an impossible ideal of purity in which neither the parent nor child has much real faith, so that the strictures themselves, and the authority they represent, become the whole point.
In any case, walking past the playground two days ago around noon I noticed that of the many features that make up what in America would be called the "Jungle Gym" and what here is called simply il nuovo castello (the new castle)--two slides, rope walkways, various bars and inclines--the most popular one by far was what I've come to think of as the Rings Over the Abyss. Three kids of various sizes were lined up on the platforms at either end, waiting their turns. I paused to watch, just in time to see a boy of about 5 or 6 set out on the rings with the encouragement of two Venetian grandmothers (one of whom I know a bit). These are the kind of women who are prone to slam shut the lone open window in an airless vaporetto on an 85 degree (29 C) summer day for fear that they themselves or their grandchild might be struck by a colpo d'aria (blow or blast of air) and develop pneumonia. But today as the boy's feet dangled some four feet above the ground they shouted advice: "Push, push!" and "Use your body!"
I'll admit that as they shouted all I thought about was the fragility of the boy's little ankles at such a height. But it turns out I needn't have worried. When he dropped--as he must, for he didn't have the upper body strength to make it across--in the middle of trying to swing his body forward (as encouraged), his feet flew out from beneath his body and he landed with a great air-expelling UUUUMPH on his chest.
The grandmothers both leapt a couple yards toward the scene of the accident and I'm afraid that, even as I gasped, the word LAWSUIT! lit up in my mind's eye like JACKPOT! on a glowing Vegas slot machine.
But the boy was okay. He looked stunned for a moment there on the one- or two-inch layer of wood chips that are supposed to pad such falls, and didn't exactly leap to his feet, but he didn't cry and didn't seem concussed nor hurt, and the grandmothers, after seeing this, didn't make too much of the incident. The boy returned to playing--though not to the rings; at least not while I was there--and the grandmothers to shouting advice at other young daredevils.
Jen says she likes the rings, and I suppose I do, too. She cites articles by Waldorf educators that suggest kids now don't have enough danger in their play. Not Addams family let's-stick-our-heads-in-a-real-guillotine danger, nor American-Marine-boot-camp peril, of course, but age-appropriate equipment to test themselves on or against, to challenge themselves physically, and mentally. Overly-controlled play is not play, regardless of what style of control is being exercised.
In the course of doing a little research for this post I found that America's National Safety Council recommends that playgrounds be covered with a 12-inch layer of impact-absorbing wood chips. I'm sure this a good idea, but we have nothing like that amount of ground cover here.
I also found that metal rings at the end of chains, regardless of how close to the ground they are set, have been phased out of American playgrounds. It seems kids were prone to hang upside down from them by their feet. In America this use of the rings was considered a serious safety hazard. Here, in the words of the father I spoke to a few days ago, I guess it's just another way that kids might figure out "how to deal with them."
Last night on the way home from an evening in Lido, Jen and I noticed that the first flyer about il nuovo castello had been posted on the community bulletin board located just a short distance from the playground. Uh-oh, thought my American self, seeing the flyer's large heading and image of the new piece of equipment. But the flyer wasn't the indignant complaint about it that I expected (on an island on which indignant complaints are never in short supply), but an open invitation to celebrate it. Over 600 signatures had been collected to encourage the city to replace the large old slide it had removed from the park some months back and the city actually had with this splendid new construction! The flyer invited residents of all ages to gather at il nuovo castello at 5 pm today when there will be "merenda per bambini e aperitivi per i genitori" (snacks for kids and drinks for adults).
Those aperitivi at children's events, by the way, mark another significant (and welcome) cultural difference between Italian and American culture. But that's a whole different subject.