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.

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

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