I like to do little experiments and activities that help me remember what it was like to be a kid—building forts, eating Happy Meals every day for a week, coloring with crayons—but I do most of these things in the privacy of my own home. I’m not ashamed, I just operate out of my house, I guess. Recently, I went out into the world to get in touch with my pre-adolescent self. I visited every public park in Alameda, CA—the small town that I grew up in—and explored the play structures. Then I reviewed them for you. Here are my findings:
1. Washington Park
Memory Lane: This park used to have a massive metal-climbing-dome-thingie (yes, that’s the official name), and when I was in the second grade I got stuck on the top of it. After scaling the structure, I froze, suddenly realizing that I was terrified of heights (there was probably a six-foot drop from the top to the sand below). I was too scared to climb back down the way that I’d come up and I certainly wasn’t going to jump, which all of my “supportive friends” were encouraging me to do. I was up there for about five minutes and had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to be spending the rest of my days on that dome—I’d eventually get married there, find a job up there, you know, just carve out a life for myself on that piece of playground equipment. My teacher was summoned and came over to help me get down. She was also a proponent of the “jump” solution; however, she proposed the idea in a calm, teacherly voice and—unlike the wild-eyed seven-year-olds gathered below me, chanting “jump, jump, jump”—she didn’t sound as though she wanted me to break my tibia. So, I jumped and landed unharmed, which undoubtedly disappointed a few people.
Present-day observations: I immediately noticed a sign in front of one of the park’s two play structures that said “This play structure is designed for kids ages 2-5,” but I dismissed the warning because I’m a total rebel and a badass. I spotted an amazing little multipurpose, role-playing hut a few yards away that tapped into my unspoken desire to crouch inside of a general store, a bank, and a car at the same time! After spending 10 seconds in the hut living out my dream, I decided that I might as well cross “climb a giant, plastic fish carcass” off of my bucket list—the ladder for the play structure “designed for kids ages 5-12” was shaped like a fish skeleton, which was awesome in a semi-morbid way.
Was I able to achieve childlike sense of joy? I went down the park’s large corkscrew slide and felt a very pure kind of happiness for about a second. That happiness turned into anxiety, though, when I couldn’t help thinking that some kid with urine-soaked pants had probably gone down the slide earlier that day.
2. Littlejohn Park
Memory Lane: I don’t have any specific recollections of the playground equipment here, but I do remember being in the park’s clubhouse when I was 10 or 11 years old and watching two type-A girls get into a physical fight over the correct way to write a lowercase r in cursive. Before the fisticuffs, I tried to defuse the situation by showing them how I personally wrote an r and they both were so utterly disgusted that you would have thought that I’d just tricked them into watching me poop.
Present-day observations: Completely delusional, I tried to squeeze into a microscopic car that I imagine was intended for infants or squirrels. Maybe infant squirrels. Obviously, I didn’t fit, but I’m not one to wallow in my failures or my inability to be fetus-size. I moved on, focusing my attention on the spinning educational panels built into the playground structure and learned that Spinosaurus means “spiny lizard,” something that I may have never known had I not revisited this park.
Was I able to achieve a childlike sense of joy? Although my ego will likely recover from the tiny-car debacle, my height prevented me from fully appreciating everything.
3. Franklin Park
Memory Lane: I never went to this park as a kid, but when I was in high school I saw this guy that I had a crush on making out with some girl who wasn’t me here.
Present-day observations: Merry-go-rounds are the endangered species of the playground world—I don’t know if parents think that those things are dangerous or if they want to discourage the sort of merriment that kids might experience while “going round.” So I was excited to come across one here. As I was riding it, I thought about starting a merry-go-round preservation society.
Was I able to achieve a childlike sense of joy? This park has what I’ll call a “stand ’n’ spin.” It’s like a Sit ’n Spin (that toy for toddlers) but you stand on an unstable platform, hold on to a pole, and then swivel around. The entire 30 seconds that I was on it, I was so afraid that I’d get some embarrassing playground-related injury that I couldn’t allow myself to take any pleasure in what was happening.
4. McKinley Park
Memory Lane: When I was six or seven, I went to day camp here.
Present-day observations: I didn’t even try any of the playground equipment because there were a couple of little kids running around. I felt weird about sharing the space with them and was afraid that one of them might be precocious and try to talk to me or something—I have a precocious-kid phobia and there was a small girl wearing a tutu at this park who looked like the type. To make matters worse, one of the dads busted out a melodica and started playing it while walking around the park. Needless to say, that made me really nervous, so I left.
Was I able to recapture a youthful sense of joy? Clearly, no. I’ll have to go back when there are fewer kids/melodica players.
5. Tillman Park
Memory Lane: This park is on the opposite side of town from where I grew up, so I’d never been here before.
Present-day observations: They have an adorable mini rock-climbing wall for teeny adventure-sport enthusiasts! These didn’t exist when I was a kid, so I was jazzed to see it, and I plan on coming back to work on my calf muscles.
Was I able to achieve a childlike sense of joy? After the thrill of discovering the climbing wall, I could see that my problem wasn’t that I am incapable of fully enjoying playgrounds. It’s just impossible to maintain that enthusiasm for more than a few minutes. I’d say that this has more to do with my capricious personality than my age.
6. Leydecker Park
Memory Lane: I used to have softball practice here, but I’d never seen the playground.
Present-day observations: The foot grips (I guess that’s what you’d call them) on one of the climbing ramps looked like red Klingon bat’leths—that won me, a Star Trek fan, over. The other climbing structure reminded me of Mount Doom from The Lord of the Rings, so I pretended to be Frodo Baggins. Though, truthfully, I don’t need a plastic mountain to kick-start my Hobbit fantasies. In conclusion, I’m a nerd.
Was I able to achieve a childlike sense of joy? I was only here for three minutes when I noticed that parents were glaring at me, or at least that’s when I started to become paranoid that parents might be glaring at me. The socially transgressive act of being an adult on a playground is too much for me to handle when there are a lot of people around. But I was proud of myself for not allowing that discomfort to stop me from entering the play area altogether.
7. Godfrey Park
Memory Lane: I’d never heard of this one before.
Present-day observations: This is a sad little place without much going on. I don’t know who this Godfrey person was, but he or she would probably be disappointed by the lack of rock-climbing walls at this park that’s supposed to be honoring his/her life.
Was I able to achieve a childlike sense of joy? Eh, no.
8. Lincoln Park
Memory Lane: I had my high school graduation party here. We ate chicken.
Present-day observations: Apparently, Lincoln Park is the spot! It’s where all of the cool little kids hang out. Evidence: one boy had a low-rider bicycle.
Was I able to achieve a childlike sense of joy? I wasn’t all wide-eyed and giddy while I was here, but this place is legit. The bars are painted red and there are two bridges—I can understand the appeal.
9. Krusi Park
Memory Lane: Another one that I’ve never been to.
Present-day observations: This is the Taj Mahal of my city’s playgrounds. I was so intimidated by the scale and yellowness of it that I just spent my time under a slide, working on an animal puzzle that I couldn’t figure out how to solve.
Was I able to achieve a childlike sense of joy? Right before I left, two girls on opposite ends of the playground started bawling, and while that didn’t bring me joy, the sound did instantly transport me back to my own childhood. I’d forgotten how integral tears were to the playground experience. Instead of looking for joy, I should have been looking for pain—playgrounds are all about splinters, blistered palms, and scraped knees.
10. Longfellow Park
Memory Lane: My mother says that I had a pirate-themed birthday here when I was in kindergarten, but I don’t remember this alleged party nor have I ever seen any photographic proof that the event took place.
Present-day observations: There was a tire ladder and after climbing it I decided that someday, I’d have to make one of these for my house.
Was I able to achieve a childlike sense of joy? I wasn’t so gung-ho about this project by this point. Ten parks in a day and a half is a lot. I don’t even think a kid would be able to deal with that. But being so exhausted made me less inhibited while playing. I didn’t care if anyone saw me or judged me for being an adult hanging out in a playground.
11. Woodstock Park
Memory Lane: I used to think that this park was named after the “Peanuts” character. I still don’t know who it’s actually named after, but I’m assuming that it isn’t a yellow cartoon bird.
Present-day observations: This park has the only teeter-totter/seesaw in the city. I didn’t try it out, though, because there are few things more depressing in life than teetering without someone there to totter back. I crawled inside a tube slide and pretended I was traveling through a portal into John Malkovich’s head.
Was I able to achieve a childlike sense of joy? This was the last park that I went to, and when I finished up, I didn’t feel joy, but I did feel like I’d accomplished something. I’d embarked on this project mostly for the sake of nostalgia, but playing on a playground when you’re too big to be playing on a playground is a challenge. There are, of course, the physical difficulties—not being able to fit into things—but also a few mental hurdles that I had to overcome. Thinking that other people might perceive my behavior as inappropriate prevented me from being as free as I probably could have been during this experiment. I’d recommend going on this sort of quest though, if only because I think it’s important that everyone know where the nearest merry-go-round is. ♦