I have a tendency to get really excited by evidence of play in the public sphere. When I see glitter embedded in pavement cracks or bits of plastic jewelry in the grass I am so pleased to be reminded that children’s use of public spaces has not entirely gone.
Imagine how excited I was, returning to a place where we had previously run sessions with rope swings from trees, to find this:
Hurray! The children had found some blue plastic twine and were playing out, making their own equipment! Brilliant, I thought, feeling so pleased for them and glad that the situation there wasn’t as dire as I had thought. I went up to the rope, seeing how frayed it was from use and pushed it back and forth. It seemed a bit damp and smelled odd, but I didn’t think anything of it. I was just about to climb on and see how it swung when a kid came running up.
“Don’t!” she said. “It’s disgusting!” I couldn’t understand what she meant.
“It’s not ours,” she said. “It’s for the dogs. They come here now in the afternoons.”
Children from all backgrounds cite dogs and dog mess as one of the greatest barriers to their playing out. In the city space is as a premium, and children directly compete with dogs and dog walkers for parks and green spaces. While most owners are good about cleaning up afterwards, some are not, and the compound effect of this can be park areas that are horrifying – particularly for people only a few feet from the ground. In this area as well the majority of children are Bangladeshi and there is a strong cultural association of dogs with filth (we had a dog when I was young and, much as I loved him, they do have a point). Most seriously, there has been a rising problem in recent years with people keeping ‘dangerous’-breed dogs and raising them to be vicious. In many outdoor play areas the rubber seats and fixtures are torn and gnawed off by dogs who are being trained to fight. Fighting dogs, and their owners, are scary enough neighbours for other adults, never mind children.
I helped the children cut the rope down and throw it away, but the fact remains that there are adults ready to take the privileges of public space that are not granted to children. While the kids have been told repeatedly that they can’t put up a rope swing of their own, that the ‘no ball games’ signs will be enforced, one caretaker working alone is unlikely to approach a group of men training their dogs to kill. While the children’s rope was cut down immediately, the kids said that the dog’s twine had been there for nearly a week.
I was looking at the website for Pogo Park, having met Toody at the Sarah Lawrence week on play, and it seems that they’ve had similar problems with dogs and play equipment. If other people out there have dealt with this before and had successes or issues that they want to share, please do.