Columnist Susan Wozniak: Finding community at the playground

  • Kids play on the Peggy Walker Memorial Playground Friday, Sept. 16, 2016 during a dedication ceremony at 253 Prospect in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 9/22/2022 9:39:41 PM

Do you feel you live in a community? Community has many different forms. Communities sometimes grow out of hobbies or interests. Communities also serve professions. Other organizations are based upon religion, which further divides into two communities — the informal group of believers and the more formal group of those who make faith their lives’ work. Temporary communities come together to solve a problem, or to change a law, or to support a candidate for public office. Some communities — like elementary or high schools, and neighborhoods — are often neither chosen nor planned, but, reflect a stage of life.

Although we now have internet-based communities, such as Facebook, or venues such as Zoom, we still have, and need, physical places to join with others. Some communities are centered on libraries, which host activities for children and discussion groups and even writers’ workshops for adults. Fabric stores and family rooms might welcome would-be dressmakers or quilters together to learn. Sporting goods stores support exchanges about where the fishing is good. Restaurants and bars that offer entertainment become friendly as customers recognize the faces of regulars and move to share tables with new friends.

One set of grandchildren has been fortunate to live a block from a great playground. The playgrounds of my childhood generally offered a few swings; an arched structure like a rainbow, that was inappropriate for hand-over-hand traversing, and the playground spinner that was sometimes called a merry-go-round. Few playgrounds offered all three. My granddaughters’ playground, however, has been something special. It had a castle-like structure which occupied 50-60 linear feet of varying shapes with a bridge, towers, a pole to slide down, three slides and a ladder. It was decorated with flat figures of knights and shields. Several smaller structures surrounded it.

Often, extended families of Hispanics came with several generations, music, elaborate lunches and bags of sand toys. Once, a frail and aged Black woman gathered what were probably her great-grandchildren about her and began singing in what might have been an African language.

This spring, my daughter and her husband hosted a joint birthday party for their girls. The party was supposed to be from 1 to 3 p.m., but, some families lingered past 4.

There was no theme and no structure. Just play. The kids loved it.

I started taking the older girl to the playground there before she could walk. She loved and still loves to swing while the younger girl turned the park into her own exercise studio. They meet other children who ask, “How old are you?” and “What’s your name?” Then they play. Encounters of that kind happened each time I brought my granddaughters there.

The kids come with one or both parents or with a grandparent or a nanny. Sometimes, two moms or two dads bring the kids, particularly if the children are just beginning to walk. One such pair placed their young toddlers on one of the flat, basket swings and gently pushed while continuing their conversation. My older grandchild, who is gifted with a daring streak, was making another basket swing fly. I had been watching the younger somersault on a flexible bridge when I heard a very young voice shout, “Wing! Wing! Wing.” I turned to see the tiny boy point at the flying basket, powered by my granddaughter. The toddler’s chant turned to, “Mine! Mine! Mine,” while his mother tried to explain it was the girl’s “wing” and he had his own.

But both mothers and I knew that as young as he was, he wanted to make the swing take off and fly, just like the big girl made “her” swing almost meet the sky.

I gathered my granddaughters to go home for lunch as the first drops of rain began to fall. That was and will be the last time the girls and I will visit the park. The aging structure, perhaps from the late 70s, has since been taken down. A few days ago, my daughter sent a photo of the girls digging a trench in the sand. I asked whether the visit to what remains of the park was sad. She answered, “It was.”

There have been things I wanted in life that I could never attain, like a job as a book editor. Not an ordinary editor but the next Nan Talese with my own imprint. I wanted to take my kids to Europe, not once, but perhaps twice and hopefully for a third time. I still want to design my own home. And now, I wish I had the wherewithal to create a new playground, one that meets every safety standard on the site vacated by the former castle that fed children’s imagination and created new friendships.

Susan Wozniak has been a case worker, a college professor and journalist. She is a mother and grandmother.


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