Monday, July 7, 2014

Rings Over the Abyss: On Differences between Italian & American Playgrounds

The unveiling at the beginning of last week of a large new piece of playground equipment in the park on Sant'Elena where Angelina and Brad used to take their kids during the filming of the dull movie The Tourist reminded me once more of some significant differences that remain between Italian and American life, in spite of the homogenizing influence of a global economy and mass corporate culture.

Well, it wasn't literally "unveiled". For the weeks it took to put the play structure's many logs together, it was only partially obscured by opaque construction drapery hung irregularly upon its chain-link fence enclosure. You could peek in and watch it take shape, as many small kids impatiently did, and the only real suspense for Jen and me in recent days as it approached its final form was wondering when exactly the builders would realize their glaring error.

After all, it was a mistake so obvious as to be comical in a perverse Addams Family kind of way, in which humor lies in the hearty approval the two young Addams kids receive from their parents for playing with the most lugubriously dangerous "toys," such as a real full-scale guillotine.

For Jen and I agreed--in a shared assumption that revealed our American origins even more clearly than the accents of our spoken Italian--that the blueprints certainly did not (could not) dictate that a series of steel rings along which a hanging child is supposed to propel him- or herself be suspended from their short chains at a great height. The distance from the rings to the ground had to be at least 8 1/2 feet (2.6 meters), meaning that for a five year old of, say, 3 feet 7 inches (110 cm) in height, dangling from fully extended arms, the drop would be about 3.5 to 4 feet (1.2 meters)!

At the age of 18 I sprained my ankle and tore ligaments while turning it from a shorter drop.

Yet when the chain-link barrier was taken away, there were those rings just where we'd marveled at them all along, gleaming in the sun above an ankle-breaking abyss.

In Park Slope, Brooklyn, where we used to live, there would have been 150 lawsuits filed over those rings while the chain-link enclosure was still in place ("reckless potential endangerment"). There would have been outraged flyers taped to the front door of every neighborhood building and a tsunami of indignant posts that would have knocked out the message board of the website Park Slope Parents. When a new bike lane was put in on the street running along one side of the neighborhood's vast Prospect Park--it's a long story, but, yes, a bike lane--the reaction was so rabid that an outside observer might reasonably have assumed it was in response to the city's plans to set up the old Chernobyl nuclear facilities within the park itself and see if a little NYC know-how might not get better results from them.   

Here, however, no one even seemed to notice the height of the rings.

As I passed by the park one afternoon right after the play equipment was open to kids I happened upon a Venetian friend there with his 19 month-old son. "Quite a piece of equipment," I said, gesturing toward the new construction. He nodded.

We stood just a few feet from the rings and I pointed to them and asked, "Do those seem a little high to you?"

"No," he replied.

"In America," I told him, "they'd never be allowed in a playground. They'd be considered much too dangerous."

He looked truly shocked by this. "Too dangerous?" he asked, disbelieving. I nodded. He made a face that suggested there was no end to how absurd people might be, then after a couple of moment's thought, said, "But the kids will figure out how to deal with them."

When I got home I found that Jen had had a similar conversation that afternoon with another neighboring (Italian) father. He, too, couldn't believe that the the height of the rings would make them too dangerous for an American playground. So, as an alternative explanation for their prohibition, Jen told him about all the lawsuits that would inevitably arise from them. 

He found this even more impossible to believe. "But why," he replied, "would a parent file a lawsuit against the city or park when it was the parent who allowed the child to play on them? How could they possibly win such a lawsuit?"

There was no simple answer to such questions. Where even to begin? A historian of liability law could have explained every one of the landmark judgements that led the way to America's present attitude towards things like playground construction and our neighbor would still--for all his new knowledge--reasonably have responded, "Okay, but why? ("Va ben', ma perchè?"). Jen didn't waste her time or his, she had no illusions of bridging such a vast gulf. She simply shrugged. 

Of course one of the oddest things about this different perspective on playground equipment is that Italians are not exactly easy-going when it comes to raising their kids. If certain Americans (of a certain class) have been labeled "helicopter" parents for the way they relentlessly hover over their children's lives, I've sometimes found myself thinking that certain Italians might be termed "shroud" parents.

Influenced perhaps by their country's all-pervasive but often empty ideal of freedom, even the most controlling American parent tends to pride him- or herself on being rather "hands off". The American parent hovers elusively ever-present as a drone, but trusts that constant surveillance, unceasing coercion and an obsessive control over the child's surroundings will usually (though not always) save him or her the trouble of actually striking.

Italian parents, or grandparents, on the other hand, can quite literally be all over a child. Don't sit down in that sand! Stay on the sidewalk! Put your arms into this jacket I'm forcing onto you [as a small cloud passes momentarily across the sun]! Don't even put a toe into the sea until 3 hours have elapsed after lunch! As the product myself of many years of Catholic education I sense the presence of the Church in this insistence on an impossible ideal of purity in which neither the parent nor child has much real faith, so that the strictures themselves, and the authority they represent, become the whole point.

In any case, walking past the playground two days ago around noon I noticed that of the many features that make up what in America would be called the "Jungle Gym" and what here is called simply il nuovo castello (the new castle)--two slides, rope walkways, various bars and inclines--the most popular one by far was what I've come to think of as the Rings Over the Abyss. Three kids of various sizes were lined up on the platforms at either end, waiting their turns. I paused to watch, just in time to see a boy of about 5 or 6 set out on the rings with the encouragement of two Venetian grandmothers (one of whom I know a bit). These are the kind of women who are prone to slam shut the lone open window in an airless vaporetto on an 85 degree (29 C) summer day for fear that they themselves or their grandchild might be struck by a colpo d'aria (blow or blast of air) and develop pneumonia. But today as the boy's feet dangled some four feet above the ground they shouted advice: "Push, push!" and "Use your body!"

I'll admit that as they shouted all I thought about was the fragility of the boy's little ankles at such a height. But it turns out I needn't have worried. When he dropped--as he must, for he didn't have the upper body strength to make it across--in the middle of trying to swing his body forward (as encouraged), his feet flew out from beneath his body and he landed with a great air-expelling UUUUMPH on his chest.

The grandmothers both leapt a couple yards toward the scene of the accident and I'm afraid that, even as I gasped, the word LAWSUIT! lit up in my mind's eye like JACKPOT! on a glowing Vegas slot machine.

But the boy was okay. He looked stunned for a moment there on the one- or two-inch layer of wood chips that are supposed to pad such falls, and didn't exactly leap to his feet, but he didn't cry and didn't seem concussed nor hurt, and the grandmothers, after seeing this, didn't make too much of the incident. The boy returned to playing--though not to the rings; at least not while I was there--and the grandmothers to shouting advice at other young daredevils.

Jen says she likes the rings, and I suppose I do, too. She cites articles by Waldorf educators that suggest kids now don't have enough danger in their play. Not Addams family let's-stick-our-heads-in-a-real-guillotine danger, nor American-Marine-boot-camp peril, of course, but age-appropriate equipment to test themselves on or against, to challenge themselves physically, and mentally. Overly-controlled play is not play, regardless of what style of control is being exercised.

In the course of doing a little research for this post I found that America's National Safety Council recommends that playgrounds be covered with a 12-inch layer of impact-absorbing wood chips. I'm sure this a good idea, but we have nothing like that amount of ground cover here.

I also found that metal rings at the end of chains, regardless of how close to the ground they are set, have been phased out of American playgrounds. It seems kids were prone to hang upside down from them by their feet. In America this use of the rings was considered a serious safety hazard. Here, in the words of the father I spoke to a few days ago, I guess it's just another way that kids might figure out "how to deal with them."

Last night on the way home from an evening in Lido, Jen and I noticed that the first flyer about il nuovo castello had been posted on the community bulletin board located just a short distance from the playground. Uh-oh, thought my American self, seeing the flyer's large heading and image of the new piece of equipment. But the flyer wasn't the indignant complaint about it that I expected (on an island on which indignant complaints are never in short supply), but an open invitation to celebrate it. Over 600 signatures had been collected to encourage the city to replace the large old slide it had removed from the park some months back and the city actually had with this splendid new construction! The flyer invited residents of all ages to gather at il nuovo castello at 5 pm today when there will be "merenda per bambini e aperitivi per i genitori" (snacks for kids and drinks for adults).

Those aperitivi at children's events, by the way, mark another significant (and welcome) cultural difference between Italian and American culture. But that's a whole different subject.   


  1. I am afraid I turned more into an american parent than italian. I laughed at the colpo di freddo, I had millions conversation with my mom and sister to explain that colds are caused by viruses not cold air. I let my kids get dirty and have a grand time but was always concerned about safety. When I asked how she dealt with my sister and I living in a third story apartment and whether she was afraid that we could have fallen off she looked at me like I was crazy. We never wore life jackets and once I fell off a moving boat but was able to hold onto the sides, luckily since I must have been three and not a swimmer yet. I bet my mom protected me from those terrible colpi d'aria very well.

    Love to hear your prospective on italian parenting.

    1. The differences between what is considered a real danger in each country are quite interesting. I've had a Venetian firefighter(!) assure me that smoke alarms are unnecessary in homes, in spite of all the statistics about how many lives they save, while in the US smoke alarms are mandatory in any apartment one wants to rent (I actually think smoke alarms are a very good idea). But a child cannot wade in the sea for 3 hours after eating in Italy (while in the US, when I was growing up, one hour was considered adequate). And, as you say, the widespread belief that drafts not viruses cause illness in Italy still boggles my mind. I also know a neighbor here whose son has had to go to the hospital twice with concussions after falling from his bike, but still doesn't believe a helmet might be a good idea, much less necessary... American-born as he is, Sandro wears both a bike helmet & life jacket in the boat.

      Of course, in America one is forbidden to install a tether ball set in a playground--far too dangerous!--but IS allowed to buy an assault rifle whose sole purpose is to kill human beings. This also boggles my mind. I guess the danger of an American child being shot in his/her own classroom is considered enough danger for any kid to deal with--a tether ball set would just be too much?

    2. I didn't even think about the gun issue, here they sell "my first rifle" for little kids, one of them ended up killing the little sister of a young child because it didn't have the safety mechanism put back on. It is a crazy dichotomy that I will never understand. If there is one thing I could change of the US gun control would be my first choice probably.

      My kids were so surprised about the three hours kids are made to wait before swimming, they were at the Lido with my friends' kids and they looked at me like the Italian moms where insane.

      Keep these posts coming...

    3. I'm sure that kids everywhere think that parents everywhere are crazy in one way or another. And of course they're probably at least partly right.

  2. I had that momentary fear as well with my children in the Finnish playgrounds after spending their first 3 years in Health and Safety-mad UK. I now love how the equipment challenges my children, encourages them to use their bodies and brains to work their way across.
    Though it does still scare me at times with how laid back they are, like when the nursery takes a bunch of 3-6 year olds sliding down an icy hill, even my son with balance issues. The first time I ran back and got his ice skating helmet. The second time I didn't know about it until afterwards. Both times he bumped his head a bit and just kept going, he loved it. I don't want my children to live in fear, but I still want to protect them, so it's hard to decide when to stand back and just let them try.
    Thanks for your blog, I really enjoy it.

    1. It is so very hard to balance or weigh what is the right amount of danger for a child, Äiti, especially when you yourself are not there to monitor the situation (as in your example of the sledding). Also each child can be so different when it comes to how s/he deals with different dangers or challenges: I think it's much easier for the parent(s) of a cautious child to feel okay about, say, the Rings over the Abyss in the playground, than the parent(s) of a daredevil who tends to leap before looking. I don't envy the people responsible for deciding what is appropriate for a playground, or teachers who must look out for a class of young kids with such a potentially broad array of approaches to challenging equipment. Thanks for your comment.

  3. I remember myself very well standing on a protrusion above the entrance to the unfinished building – there were no less than ten feet to fall if I stumbled. We were Assiniboine braves repulsing the Sioux attacks, couple dozens of us against half a hundred of them. DDR-made films “about Indians” we such a rage in Russia of my childhood.

    There were so many collective games and expeditions, risky and wild some of them.

    My son’s childhood was different – no Assiniboine vs. Sioux rampage, nothing of the sort. In fact, the very phenomenon of letting a child play outside is considered outdated, a ticket to doom.

    Sometimes I pity my son for not having experienced what we considered the essential joys of being a boy among other boys. But more often I feel content he was not standing on that protrusion ten feet high above the ground covered in cement chunks and bricks with a very real chance of becoming a cripple if his feet stray outside of the tiny platform.

    1. Your childhood play equipment (ersatz as it was), Sasha, makes the Rings Over the Abyss seem quite tame! It's amazing the dangers that kids can find, and I liked reading about the ones you did. I also find it interesting that kids in Russia no longer play much outside. It's certainly true in the US. I can understand it in NYC, but was amazed to find that a residential neighborhood occupied by countless families with kids in Asheville, North Carolina, for example would be consistently devoid of kids playing outside as would have been normal in the 1970s--and beautiful old neighborhood parks would also be empty. Statistics show the number of childhood abductions in the US has in no way increased over the years, so what justifies this? Is it that fear has displaced envy or greed as the primary weapon of advertisers (and, of course, politicians)? Whatever it is, it's interesting to see it's not only an American issue. (Though at least in our neighborhood here in Venice, the park is filled with kids playing every day.)

    2. I also think there is no statistically proven increase in risk to justify these empty spaces where kids used to play just 15-20 years ago.

      Life was more communal, I remember summer evening of my childhood when at the tables outside our apartment block 20-25 men, mostly seniors, were playing checkers – and we were running around or building fortifications in a sandbox, couple dozens of us at the least.

      Many concepts have changed since then – and sometimes for the better. It was considered perfectly OK to add total strangers to your table at a restaurant or hotel room if there are empty seat(s) or bed(s). Now it would have looked totally weird, but I remember sitting with a friend in a restaurant, having conversation – and then a couple was seated right beside us, and they began their conversation – and dinner – too, everyone feeling awkward but such couplings were the norm, you couldn’t refuse these additions.