At our Parkridge house, we are remodeling, so we have a lot of leftover scrap lumber. When the neighborhood kids see the pile of boards in our yard, they get excited.
"You going to throw that away? We could build something with that!"
It's a beautiful day. The sky is a crisp blue, the red and gold fall leaves drift down onto the late-summer flowers growing along my neighbors' fence.
The kids take the tongue-in-groove first. It snaps together like tinker toys, but falls apart just as easily. Next they take the long flat pieces of plywood and particle board. Propped against the storm drain, the boards make a long gentle slope: perfect skateboard ramps. One industrious 14-year-old builds a more alarming extension to a neighbors' ramp with scavenged boards and bricks. For one warm Saturday, he practices all day on his mini-skatepark. The neighborhood skateboarders seem especially inventive. They are always looking around at their world, always thinking about how they could use it to play.
Inside the house my husband is building stuff, doing math out loud, figuring out kitchen cabinets and window seats. Out on the sidewalk the kids are figuring out stuff, too. They are budding engineers and carpenters, building things for themselves from materials at hand. The most satisfying playgrounds don't come in a box and can't be picked out of a catalog.
The Ashley Nicole Dream Playground a few blocks away is a well-intentioned effort to fill the need for a 100-percent accessible playground. But the playground doesn't feel like a child's dream. It reflects the kind of childhood a group of bureaucrats might dream up. The plastic ships, the cartoonish alligators: Everything is finished. The only thing left to do if children want to make their mark is to tear it down, to break and deface it.
Looking around the playground, a visitor can see this desire to make one's mark. The decorative trim on the pavilion is smashed. Someone has dripped tears of paint down the smiling face of one of the alligators. By the nature of its materials and design it will never look better than the day it was set up, shiny and new, before it had been touched by any kids at all.
Cutesy playgrounds built by adults aren't enough to facilitate brilliance in children. Children need a space to build and invent. A place to solve problems and create a world view in an area where a little mess is tolerated. My richest childhood memories take place in an old barn on my parents' property filled with old lumber and wire, rusty hand tools, jars of nails and screws—lots of neat junk for us to mess around with, build stuff.
That kind of "playground" doesn't really exist where I live now, certainly not for children with physical disabilities. But Parkridge is an area where a little mess is tolerated. With more serious crimes to deal with, no one in authority cares that some kids are building skateboard ramps in the street. The rumble of wheels and the clatter of a skateboard as it goes flying doesn't bother me, either. I want those kids to be prepared when the time comes to build their own kitchen cabinets.