Joe Mathews: Our playgrounds are safer, but many are also boring

Kids play on oversize food playground equipment at Oak Park’s James McClatchy Park in October 2014 after a $2.8 million renovation. Joe Mathews says new playgrounds can be too safe for kids.
Kids play on oversize food playground equipment at Oak Park’s James McClatchy Park in October 2014 after a $2.8 million renovation. Joe Mathews says new playgrounds can be too safe for kids. Sacramento Bee file

California doesn’t make playgrounds like it used to.

Fifteen years after the state legislated compliance with national safety standards for new and renovated public playgrounds, I can take the Three Stooges – my three sons under age 8 – to parks around California confident I’ll see the same safe equipment: low swings, low slides, ubiquitous guardrails and rubbery mats to cushion falls.

But all that safe sameness is boring. And safer playgrounds carry their own risks.

The playground equipment that once captured children’s attention – merry-go-rounds, teeter-totters, ropes, monkey bars – are hard to find. Researchers warn that today’s playgrounds no longer provide the fast-moving kinds of play that help children overcome fears and develop sensory and motor skills.

That puts the onus on parents to seek out classic playgrounds too old (built before the mid-’90s) to comply fully with today’s regulations. And so I’ve been introducing the Three Stooges to dangerous old playgrounds.

On road trips, we’ve visited Santa Barbara’s Kid’s World playground, a giant wood fort with so many places to hide that you can’t keep your eyes on your kids. Locally, we patronize La Laguna at Vincent Lugo Park in San Gabriel, which the Mexican artist Benjamin Dominguez created a half-century ago during a career that also produced Atlantis playground in Garden Grove. The playground’s concrete structures are shaped like dinosaurs and big fish, and kids climb them to go down long, treacherous slides.

The Three Stooges love La Laguna so much that, on a family trip to the Bay Area last week, I decided to stop at the mecca of old-school California playgrounds: the Dennis the Menace Playground inside El Estero Park in Monterey.

It has had safety updating, but it remains much the same place created in the 1950s by Hank Ketcham, author of the comic strip for which the park is named. A suspension bridge hangs high and long over the playground’s center. The park is full of long, twisty slides. Our only disappointment was that you can no longer play on the old rail steam engine; a sign says the city is seeking ways to allow access while complying with safety laws.

I drove the family north, wondering whether playground greatness was a thing of California’s past. But two days later, I took the Stooges to Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park, where the Magical Bridge playground opened just last year.

Magical Bridge is annoying in the way of so many Silicon Valley enterprises; it’s not content to be smart, it has to tell you how smart it is. Signs cite research on how the equipment improves children’s vestibular development; its website calls it “the nation’s most innovative and inclusive playground.” A donor wall honors those who covered the $3.8 million cost.

In spite of its preciousness, the place is great.

Magical Bridge is the brainchild of a mother who wanted a playground to serve children with all disabilities, including her own daughter. And the place achieves a magical combination – at once more inclusive and more challenging than the standard playground.

Large disc and bucket swings accommodate kids with disabilities and create speedy movement to satisfy risk takers. The treehouse, bridges and theater are fully accessible. Children can make music by moving inside a 24-string laser harp. The slides are tall (there’s a “patent-pending safe slide landing”). And a 21st-century merry-go-round connects a spinning circular platform with a cone of ropes that allows kids to climb as they spin.

At the top of the merry-go-rope structure, the Stooges enjoyed a 360-degree view of this new and classic California playground – and the dangerous freedom that comes with being too high for their parents to reach them.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at