Child’s Play

“Just how hard can it be to build a playground?” I asked. The answer: Harder than anything I’ve ever tried before.

January 1992By Comments

When it came time to build a playground for the preschool at our church, we did what post-modern parents do. We hired an expert to show us how. This is the age of the overeducated but skill-less parent. We can operate the tools of our jobs—fax machines, computers, telephone voice mail—but we can’t do simple household repairs or put in a decent garden. Our ignorance about everyday tasks is so vast we support a cottage industry of practical consultants to teach our children basic skills, such as manners and sewing.

The playground expert our church hired is named Jimi Jolley. Jolley, 41, has designed and built 99 playgrounds all over the world, from Germany to Israel. Our church is in Dripping Springs, just 25 miles from Austin, where Jolley lives, and he agreed to do the job for $6,200, an amount that included all the materials plus his time. His fee schedule is flexible, but normally his basic design work costs $1,000.

At six four, with long hair, a single feather earring, and wire-rimmed glasses, Jolley is a remnant of the past, a hippie in the nineties. In the late sixties he owned a leather business in Florida. In the mid-seventies he taught at a preschool, where he built his first playground. Now he teaches a class in infant development at Austin Community College and is working on his Ph.D. in early childhood development with a specialty in playground design at the University of Texas. In his spare time he builds playgrounds. Twenty years ago, doctorates in playground design did not exist, but then neither did post-modern parents.

The first time I met Jolley he told me that a seven-year-old in India can do more with a Swiss army knife than most thirty-year-olds in America can do with an entire tool kit. For three weekends last summer, Jolley’s job was to bring the thirty families involved in the building of our playground up to technical speed with seven-year-olds in India. He did that, and in addition, he gave form, substance, and safety to our dreams of play.

During the initial planning meeting with Jolley, the parents and children said they wanted seesaws, swings, and slides. Jolley’s eyes widened with the wisdom of experience. “Fine,” he advised, “but the kids will get tired of the standard stuff.” Part of his theory is that playgrounds should be more than a series of permanent toys and that kids learn by building things themselves. He suggested that we construct freestanding objects for the children to manipulate on their own: chunky building blocks cut from excess two-by-fours, planters to house gardens, a wood-framed Plexiglas easel to draw on with crayons, paint, and shaving cream.

He was also eminently practical. “There are five ways kids can get hurt on seesaws,” Jolley explained. They fall off backward. They get thrown forward. Their fingers get caught in the fulcrum point. Their feet get caught under the bar, and finally, their tailbones get bruised from abrupt descents. “This seesaw,” he said, pointing to his own, made of wood with used tires as cushions at strategic points, “prevents all five injuries.”

As Jolley’s concept took shape, however, I began to feel cold stabs of panic. Even on paper the playground seemed impossibly out of reach. Its primary feature was a large hill built over a tunnel of concrete conduit four feet in diameter. Behind the hill was a banisterlike slide and various ladders, poles, and playhouses, all connected by a suspension bridge made of tires linked by chain. A tricycle path wound around the base of the hill. To one side of the hill were three kinds of swings, made of wood, rubber, and metal bars. A playhouse, a seesaw, and a shed filled with the wooden building blocks were on the other side.

Other exotic features—such as three wooden frames holding tires split in half like bagels so the kids could fill them with water and let it cascade to the level below—expanded on the basic playground elements. The conduit-pipe tunnel was connected by speaking tubes so that the children could hide in the tunnel and yell at each other “long distance.”

Many of the materials would be donated. Tire companies happily gave us a mountain of different-sized used tires, saving themselves a disposal fee. In addition, we got free conduit pipes from a highway contractor. Still, the work to be done seemed formidable, particularly because we parents were supposed to build all of the structures with the sweat of our brows and the work of our hands.

“Dream on,” I thought to myself. I knew that many of the other mothers were as poorly skilled as I, and I remembered the occasion when, as a sophomore in college, I had told my mother that I didn’t have time to learn to sew because I was too busy learning political philosophy. Twenty years later, I seldom if ever think about the nuances of liberty versus equality, but hardly a day goes by that I don’t face an unraveled hem or a missing button.

The next Saturday morning I showed up at the church even though I was confident there was nothing I could do to help. A work crew of about sixty volunteers soon assembled on the rocky lot we hoped to recreate as a mighty temple of play for our restless children. At eight o’clock, Jolley pulled into the parking lot driving his 1970 pink Chevrolet truck with a small plastic Gumby on the hood. The minute he arrived the children began to chant, “Ji-mi Jol-ley! Ji-mi Jol-ley!” as though he were their own personal Wizard of Oz.

There was no turning back.

Quickly Jolley took charge. Some of the men had already moved the giant pipe to the center of the lot, and one of them was behind the wheel of an earthmover, scooping up sand and piling it on the pipe. Jolley walked around the work site, assigning jobs to the rest of us. In a few minutes I was standing at the base of the hill with a shovel in my hand. To my left was a mound of sand. To my right was a long row of empty tires that would form a retaining wall to keep the hill from collapsing in the first rain. My job was to fill the tires with sand—one shovelful at a time. It wasn’t long before my soggy, sweaty clothes were plastered to my skin, and blisters were popping out on my red hands. What madness, I wondered, led me to this place? I wanted to cry, but I kept on shoveling.

Soon I began to learn things. I learned to wear gloves. I also learned why people who shovel sand for a living hang out in bars after work. Anything to anesthetize the pain. Also, I discovered new ways to keep score. Friends who didn’t show up to help dropped rapidly on my internal scoreboard. Conversely, people who came and worked all day suddenly seemed like the finest folks alive. We developed an esprit de corps; come to think of it, the experience was how I imagine basic training in the Marines to be. I was afraid to leave for even an hour for fear of being called a wimp or a slacker behind my back.

Volunteers who knew what they were doing were in great demand. Cecil, a retired shop teacher, showed my husband, Clint, how to establish an even sawing rhythm. “Slow down,” said Cecil. “Sixty strokes a minute. Otherwise you’ll burn up the blade.” The admonition to go slowly came too late for one of our workers, who accidentally burned up an electric saw by shoving it through the wood as if he were using a pasta machine. Paul, a champion rose gardener, showed me how to load a wheelbarrow efficiently. “Put the weight in the front,” he said. “It’ll ride easier.” It did—sort of.

During the second weekend, I graduated to the skilled-labor pool. Jolley pulled me and a friend named Jane off sand-shoveling detail and told us to assemble the basketball pole, backboard, and hoop. He handed us the equipment, a thick instruction book, and several small brown bags jingling with loose screws, nuts, and bolts. Then without a word of advice or consolation, he turned and walked away. His philosophy is that people learn by hurling themselves into a project, messing up, and figuring out on their own how to fix it. This philosophy is totally foreign to the skill-less parent. If we weren’t terrified of mistakes, we wouldn’t be skill-less. I looked at Jane. She gave me a stiff-upper-lip smile and asked weakly, “How hard can it be?”

Harder than childbirth. Harder than potty training. Harder than stopping a full-scale food fight between three-year-olds in a Mexican restaurant. Harder than you can imagine.

We read the instructions many times. We laid pairs of nuts and bolts in a straight line on the ground. We then attempted to determine what the nuts and bolts were supposed to hold together. And we did it. We built the backboard. Then we waited for Jolley to appear and inspect our work. When he arrived, all he said was, “You need to make an adjustment. It’s backward.”

Now we faced a new crisis: How, pray tell, does one unbolt? Clint, bless him, knew the secret. He showed us how to reverse the ratchets on our socket wrenches. Until then, we had only been able to tighten. Now we could undo all the work we had done. What fun.

Eight hours after we started, Jane and I retired to a nearby picnic table to gulp Gatorade and consider the grandness of the basketball pole, backboard, and hoop that stood before us. “Behold!” said Jane. “Basketball!”

About that time, two teenage Boy Scouts walked over with a ball and started a round of one-on-one. I watched as the ball made its maiden voyage into the hoop and heard it rip cleanly through the net. “I did it!” cried one Boy Scout, who had in fact only thrown the ball. No, I thought smugly, you most certainly did not do it.

By the third weekend, the playground on paper had become a reality. The hill, the ladders, the swings, the tunnels—all were in place, and all of the families were pros. Even children as small as my six-year-old daughter, Maury, and three-year-old son, Tyler, had been put to work helping with the finishing touches, like sanding rough wood into building blocks.

Near dusk on Saturday afternoon, Jimi Jolley stood beside our newly constructed seesaw amid the streaks of fading sunlight. “I need two test kids!” he shouted. Within seconds he was surrounded by clamoring children, all begging to be the ones.

“Pick me!” screamed Maury. Too late. Without waiting to be chosen, two boys had already mounted the seesaw and were soaring up and down through the air, deaf to the protests of the other children. At the edge of the crowd I saw Tyler, his face in a ferocious pout, elbowing his way toward Jolley.

“No!” Tyler roared. “My turn to test.”

A month earlier none of us would have imagined that we could accomplish so much with so little. Jolley told us that if we had hired carpenters to build the playground for us, it would have cost more than $40,000. Not only did we get a bargain but we also learned other lessons. Jolley had told us that building the playground would strengthen our sense of ownership of the preschool, and it had. He had told us that the playground would draw the kids to the church and the school like a magnet. He was right. (Now the only problems we have are keeping the children off the playground and keeping the sand that gets in their shoes out of the church.) Jolley’s final lesson was expressed best in the bumper sticker on the back of his pink truck. It said: “It’s Never Too Late to Have a Happy Childhood.” True, I thought—nor is it ever too late to learn to shovel sand.

The sun had already set when we finished the job on the last Saturday. I looked up and saw Clint and Tyler silhouetted atop the hill of sand. They drew imaginary swords. Clint had transformed himself into a truly venal Sheriff of Nottingham, and Tyler had become a truly heroic Robin Hood. I stood at the base of the hill, drinking in the laughter.

Related Content