I’m a pretty radical progressive in a lot of ways, but I have serious nostalgia for a lot of kids’ activities. I believe children should spend lots of time exploring and that playground equipment is meant to be used “creatively.” I’m also a fan of kitschy stuff from the 1950s and 60s. So it warmed my heart to visit Cabin John Park last weekend with Chris, Sprout and my in-laws.
Cabin John Park is old and shows it. While the surrounding area is one of the richest regions in the country, you wouldn’t know it from the park. It’s neither shiny or trendy. Which is not to say that it’s dilapidated. Rather, it feels worn and comfortable, like a well-used armchair.
Cabin John Park’s claim to fame is its train. (They should use that as a motto!) Tickets are a mere $2 a person. What’s particularly neat is that it’s a real train on metal tracks pulled by a serious engine. Sprout is still a little young to fully appreciate it, but some of the kids were absolutely rabid with excitement. It’s also a multi-generational attraction. A woman in line with us brought her children on it when they were little and she was now bringing her grandchildren.
The train tracks wound through the woods in the park, where riders could see such exciting attractions as the playground and the parking lot. But despite the seeming mundanity, there was something magical about it. At the playground, the kids ran over to the fence to wave at us, like an old fashioned movie. There was a palpable feeling of being together on a journey, even if it was only for 20 minutes. It became a time to stop, look at the scenery and just enjoy being with each other.
Just outside the train were two of the tackiest, weirdest pieces of public “art” I’ve ever seen. Both reminded me of the odd and creepy fairy tale sculptures in the Magic Forest in Lake George, New York that I’d bike by as a kid. (Sadly, I have never gotten up the guts to actually purchase a ticket.) The first was a hippo with a open mouth that had a water fountain facing away from the user, which managed to be both impractical and rather ugly.
The other one was a giant, disembodied pig’s head with blank, dark eyes labeled Porky the Litter Eater. Besides its terrifying visage, it also has a low, nearly unintelligible robotic voice. It was intended to encourage kids to throw away trash rather than litter, but I was nervous at the thought of putting my hands near its mouth. It’s the sort of thing that scars you as a kid in a good way, like hiding behind the couch during Doctor Who. I could totally see a whole Goosebumps book about it. Because it’s both deeply creepy and completely harmless, kids can face fears without any actual risk, helping them handle actual risky situations later on. I will feel some level of due diligence done if Sprout has nightmares about it in the future.
After the train ride, we investigated the playground, which was quite extensive. It was a series of different pieces of play equipment, appropriate for kids of different sizes and ages. While many newer playgrounds indicate that “This equipment is only appropriate for 2-5 year olds” and “This equipment is only appropriate for 6-12 year olds,” it didn’t try to make such distinctions, leaving it up to the parents and kids to decide. It ranged from high, steep slides to a car-shaped thing to a bunch of blocks attached together with holes to crawl from one to the next.
While some of the equipment was relatively new, a lot of it was from a different era that wasn’t quite as paranoid about safety. In particular, there was a big circle that could rotate attached to the top of a pole. In addition to just hanging on to the circle, a number of kids had climbed up it and were hanging upside down from it. Another piece was a series of bells attached to a wall. While you could get a tinny, faint sound if you tapped them with your hands, you could produce a lovely, brassy ring if you wracked them with a stick. Which, of course, all of the kids were. The whole thing reminded me of the playground in Central Park Schenectady, NY, one of the coolest playgrounds around when I was a kid. The fact that my mother-in-law brought Chris there when he was a kid and never went back because it was too dodgy probably speaks to my taste in playgrounds more than anything else. (It’s somewhat disappointing to see that it went through a major renovation, but that stuff was old 20 years ago.)
I’m certainly not in favor of unsafe playground equipment by any means. In particular, anything with peeling paint or rust concerns me for the risk of lead poisoning and tetnus respectively. But a lot of playgrounds these days have the exact same equipment, all of which force kids to play in the exact same ways. Most of them no longer have traditonal monkey bars, because kids can climb on top of them and hang upside down. Very few parks have what was my favorite piece of equipment, the spiderweb.
Unfortunately, there’s a good chance that by trying to make playground equipment safer, we’ve made it worse for kids in the long run. Some people think that cookie-cutter equipment inspires kids to use it in ways it wasn’t intended, but I think that’s a given of childhood. Sprout started trying to climb up slides before he was big enough to go down them, so that just seems like a natural outgrowth of exploration. The bigger risk in my opinion is that they’ll just get bored, abandoning the playground and the physical and mental benefits that come with it. In addition, kids who do test themselves in relatively low-risk activities like playing on the playground are less likely to engage in high risk activities later on.
So while I love that we live across the street from a park and two perfectly modern playgrounds, I’m also glad that Cabin John Park is keeping it old-school.
For other posts on parks and nature areas in Montgomery County, check out A Nature Playground in the Suburbs: Constitution Gardens Park in Gaithersburg and Along the Stream and Through the Woods: Hiking at Croydon Creek Nature Center.