The first playground I remember, my very early childhood playground in a suburb of Washington, was your standard early 1980s wood and metal playground, comprised of slides, monkey bars, and swings lodged into a sea of small, tan colored pebbles. That is how I remember my playground but my memory may be blurred by the fact that I did not play there long. My playground and the garden allotments behind it were destroyed to make room for a new community center. The community center catered primarily to senior citizens and there was no other playground nearby. I don’t blame the reader for pitying the child I was, because I do, too.
You may see where this article is headed — as a mother 30 years later, I am always on the lookout for a playground. If I find one that is particularly amazing, its light will shine beyond the playground, to its neighborhood, its city, even its country!
Our most recent extended pit stop happened to be in London, Great Britain. Though the sentiment is worthy of a book onto itself, I will stay succinct when stating that I am not a big fan of that city, especially as a parent. Living in the city with kids, you are confronted with a plethora of logistical issues that include a difficult transportation system, bad weather, astronomical prices and, let’s just say it, sharp class divisions that leave even the libertarian in me heartbroken.
There are many nice places for children to visit but most come with a hefty price tag. The public playgrounds are hit and miss though a few in our area were great. One particular playground though redeems London for me and that is the Diana Memorial Playground in Hyde Park. In fact, all else aside, I am happy to nominate it best playground in the world (I haven’t visited every single one but I trust my sample size).
The playground sits in the northwestern corner of Hyde Park. It is gated and manned by a security team but is free to all. On the elusive warm and sunny day in London, there will be a line to get in — it is worth the wait. Once inside, it is a sprawling paradise for children ranging in ages 1 to 13 (ish). The playground has many different areas — themes that don’t announce themselves with blaring signs and garish colors but subtleties in structure and layout.
The centerpiece of the playground is a life-size wooden tall ship, beached on a swath of clean sand, surrounded by small wooden lifeboats. South of the boat is a rock beach where water flows in the summertime. West of the ship and through a little tunnel in the shrubs, there’s a life-size tipi encampment, replete with a lookout point (comes in handy if you lose track of junior). Beyond the ship you will find a more traditional playground, with climbing apparatuses and slides. The playground further extends to an area where kids can play music on instruments I can’t readily identify. There are still other areas, with little wooden huts and a quieter sand and boat space, maybe more suited for smaller children.
Wood and some metal, and likely bits of black rubber here and there, are the other of the day. Safety measures include woodchips, sand, and grass (remember that green stuff?). If you pay attention, you will find lavender, sage, and rosemary on the grounds. If you walk just beyond the sandy area, you may hear wind chimes calling from the north end, drawing you to what I can only call a kiddie zen zone. In an era where we are just beginning to appreciate “natural” playgrounds, the Diana Memorial playground resounds as an example.
What else sets this playground aside? Let’s talk about class. There is no place in the United States that I can think of that can compare to the class divisions found in London. It is also a city with a particularly multicultural population, made up of both very poor immigrants seeking a better life and dizzyingly wealthy immigrants seeking the same thing. To top it all off, the city is graced by a variety of different tourists.
Once you cross those gates into the playground, you, dear grown-up, sporting all the paraphernalia that distinguishes you as a This or a That, are relegated to the sidelines. The children instinctively get that this place is made for them. They lunge towards the ship and spend the next couple of hours, if not more (our personal record is four hours) being themselves. Time and again, I see the most hands-on parents give up (though beware free-range parents; this park is made for kids and if you and your gigantic body blink, you will have a hard time finding them in its many hidden corners and passageways).
We can’t clamber up and down the ship or run through the sand as easily as the children can. Sometimes you will see a parent hovering over a small child on the deck of the ship but they always appear overwhelmed; these parents quickly recognize their place on the playground as one where they no longer have Authority. It is more Lost Boys than Lord of the Flies but it still leaves adults dumbfounded. I am of that number too, of course, and I find it absolutely hilarious.
It may be clichéd but I have seen children of every stripe and color in that playground and they all revert to some common way of being that transcends even language and that we adults have simply forgotten. On a nice day, when that ship is literally crawling with kids, the standard is mania and it is beautiful to see. It’s a reminder of how much weight we carry with our various divisions and how much we burden our beloved children with them.
On a good day in London, on our local playground where race, class, school uniforms and linguistic boundaries may as well have been built out of concrete, I was a cynic. Visiting the Diana playground was a most welcome respite from all of that. And, though I am wary of entering the treacle zone, it is a testimony to the spirit of the Lady who inspired it. This playground exists in an unlikely place and it gives some pointers, some idea of what our society could be like. Maybe even our world.