Playgrounds and Treasure Pockets

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I hesitate to write here with authentic claims about the wild world, when the wildest I usually get is the playground down the street. But we’re here again today, back on home ground, my little daughter smiling up at me in her pumpkin hat, celestial jacket, and duck boots (how she loves those boots!) as she celebrates victory over the flu with a dose of swings and puddle stomping. We’ve just finished chasing each other around the bathroom building and are heading over to check on the condition of a rained-covered slide—when she stops, bends down, and closes her tiny pink fingers around a sweetgum ball. She places it in her right belly pocket, then pats it for safekeeping. “Treasure,” she says.

“If you are a parent who feels he has little nature lore at his disposal there is still much you can do for your child. With her, wherever you are and whatever your resources, you can still look up at the sky—its dawn and twilight beauties, its moving clouds, its stars by night. You can listen to the wind, whether it blows with majestic voice through a forest or sings a many-voiced chorus around the eaves of your house or the corners of your apartment building, and in the listening, you can gain magical release for your thoughts. You can still feel the rain on your face and think of its long journey, its many transmutations, from sea to air to earth. Even if you are a city dweller, you can find some place, perhaps a park or a golf course, where you can observe the mysterious migrations of the birds and the changing seasons. And with your child you can ponder the mystery of a growing seed, even if it be only one planted in a pot of earth on the kitchen window.”

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Before my daughter was born, a grad school mate sent our family a copy of Rachel Carson’s A Sense of Wonder, a quiet, profound chronicle of Carson raising her grand-nephew on a diet of unmediated, uninhibited wildness. (“We have let Roger share our enjoyment of things people ordinarily deny children because they are inconvenient, interfering with bedtime, or involving wet clothing that has to be changed or mud that has to be cleaned off the rug.”) As a toddler Roger learns tidepools and stars, storm patterns and lichens from his scientist relative—through the sheer guiding force of natural wonder, and exposure. 

“When Roger has visited me in Maine and we have walked in these woods I have made no conscious effort to name plants or animals nor to explain to him, but have just expressed my own pleasure in what we see, calling his attention to this or that but only as I would share discoveries with an older person. Later I have been amazed at the way names stick in his mind, for when I show color slides of my woods plants it is Roger who can identify them. … I am sure no amount of drill would have implanted the names as firmly as just going through the woods in the spirit of two friends on an expedition of exciting discovery.”

Carson writes that it is far more important for a person to learn to love, than to name, the creatures he or she encounters. Carson’s grand-nephew learns their names anyway. 

“I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him or her, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused–a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love–then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he or she is not ready to assimilate.”

*

Vinmont Veteran Park was built in 1951, named for a parks department employee and city planner named Weinberg. Both names translate to Wine Mountain, and according to elevator chatter, this mont has entertained multiple rounds of children from my own apartment building. I am comforted by this generational vintage of skinned knees and sunburn. 

Vinmont’s acre or so of blacktop hosts three climbing structures with slides, bridges, steps, ladders, and child-sized countertops, where Lizzie plays “hamburger store” and everything costs three dollars. Closest to the baseball diamond are the big-kid swings, which Lizzie can manage, but she still prefers the baby swings, which overlook the entire park and in summer catch the spray of a single massive sprinkler, whose control button is attached to the bathroom building at a two-year-old’s height.

Calling a playground a park, as most people in Riverdale do, is a semantic difference I still haven’t gotten over, with my lived experience of what a vast wild “park” can be. But over the past two years this playground has become my most valued community space, crucial to my sanity as a parent, woman, and friend. I have made my most valued confidences here, watching and learning with fellow mothers from the uninhibited, exploratory, imaginative, courageous natures of our children. Here I have learned to let go, to let Lizzie grow, to hold my breath as she climbs the tallest slide. 

They’re building a new playground just down Mosholu Ave, set to open this spring on the Broadway side of the cricket field and stables, which hug the old-growth forest of Van Cortlandt Park. I’m sure we’ll go there too. But I don’t know what my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter would do without Vinmont, “her” play- and proving-ground. I don’t know what I would do without it, either. 

*

Autumn is falling—a day in recent memory, winter jackets yet to emerge, and it’s just the baby and me and the swings, all the playground to ourselves. I shout “hiya!” and karate-chop the swing to push it skyward. We’ve been through all our songs, laughed at the squirrels scampering across limbs behind and above us. Liz points to a flurry of “helicopters” spiraling earthward from maple trees. Our world is solitary, yet full, perfect really, suspended—and then we spot them.

The invaders. Tall, quiet, mean-looking, identical in gray jumpsuits with bright yellow sashes at the knees. In gloved hands they carry black bags, metal rakes, and—worst among the offenders—a leaf blower. Lizzie and I watch as the eight of them disperse casually, skillfully across Vinmont’s acreage, corralling all our precious treasures and bounty into the park’s fenced corners, then into their bags: leaves, acorns, samaras, sticks and seeds. Gone for now, until their next replenishment, are all those treasures we had scooped up, investigated, then swapped at the hamburger store for imaginary packets of ketchup.

I reach into my pocket and grin. A handful of helicopters remains, delicate, collected at their peak of aerodynamic dryness. We swallow our sadness, heading home to avoid the roar of the leaf blower. The invaders will be back, but their task is Sisyphean. This playground‘s wildness will not be contained.

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As my daughter grows, she is steadily dismantling my fear that her urban upbringing will keep her from learning the wild world. She oohs, ahhs, touches, points, splashes, ogles with abandon…at the moon, a squirrel’s leap, the crunch and smell of leaves…and at the acorns, pebbles, woodchips, bark and sweetgum balls that our playground provides to line those precious pockets.

 

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