This spring more than 900 people converged in my small Kansas town to build a playground worthy of any kid’s dreams.
It was a moment of pride for everyone here in Concordia, Kan. Despite projections of population decline, we glimpsed a future of prosperity.
The new didn’t take long to wear off.
Paint started peeling from the durable plastic lumber. Sad, people told me, that the windows of the play train depot and combine reel already were looking worn.
Sad? Perhaps. But when you let children loose and tell them to climb, paint is but an afterthought. The equipment still works. The kids are still happy.
Sad, for me, is the evidence of blatant disrespect.
The swastikas scratched in the brand-new sidewalk. The cigarette butts pitched among the recycled tire mulch. The pee in the twisty slide. The string-cheese wrappers and empty soda cups and plastic spoons that pop like neon against the black rubber canvas underfoot.
The playground is a petri dish for the next generation. Not to be dramatic, but if we can’t take care of a little playground, how are we going to teach our children to preserve the planet?
Adults who should be doing the teaching have littered their cigarette waste where babes explore and learn. Learn that maybe it’s OK to be cavalier about lighting up in front of them and then chucking the embers into a pool of petroleum product, daring it not to burn.
With that precedent, of course kids will chuck trash on the ground, 30 steps from a waste barrel.
The swastikas rocket the ugly into a new dimension. Please, let them be from an ignorant kid who never learned the symbol’s depth of hurt.
My kids will never have the excuse of ignorance. We weave math lessons into cooking, so why not the Holocaust during a play date? My rant on racism, war and inhumanity was near unfathomable for a 3- and a 5-year-old who think bad guys will shake your hand and identify themselves as such.
Well, thanks, bad guys, for the figurative handshake. For smearing our happy place with hate.
The playground offers so many widely recognized learning opportunities. It’s where kids learn to navigate social relationships. They explore through imaginative play. They develop motor skills and build a foundation of exercise. They climb until they taste danger, but parents know they’re safe.
We’re failing them if we forget to teach respect for property and public spaces.
The boys and I make a point to pick up trash when we’re at the playground. Such a small gesture, but seeing its tangible result gives them ownership and makes them feel like good guys.