January 2015

Peter Landau

nonfiction

Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die by Amy Fusselman

My first child was enrolled in a preschool that had a strict no-violent-play policy. No weapons were allowed on campus, either real or fake, and roughhousing fantasy play wasn't tolerated. What else did I expect from a progressive cooperative run by parents that stressed nonviolent conflict resolution, diversity (long as that wasn't financial or political diversity), and supported an emergent curriculum, which fostered learning through play? Perhaps an inkling of what boys are like. No bother, my son gave them a graphic illustration of that with the creative manipulation of his lunch. He chewed his sandwich into the shape of a gun.

That incident resulted in a meeting with the school's director. Forget the double standard that ignored schoolgirls who fantasized about being princesses and marrying their Prince Charmings: more frustrating was the administration's belief that a set of rules and regulations, really a safeguard for grownups, could somehow rewire the hardwired instincts of children. Wouldn't it be better to monitor and direct? Who knows. The liability issues would probably have shuttered the school faster than the stinky wakeup call of a soiled diaper during naptime. I was left seething at the injustice that my boy couldn't be a boy.

Amy Fusselman is more thoughtful on the subject of play in her new book Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die. The title says it all, but keep reading; Fusselman is a worthy companion. She provides a bit of history on the development of the public playground, a touch of memoir and a pinch of philosophy on the meaning of play and space and death. Honestly, you can't talk about play without the specter of mortality. Where's the fun in that?

Death is a given. How can anyone expect to live an authentic life without first acknowledging, I mean physically knowing to the point of pain, that we are mortal and are going to die? It's a bit of a heavy trip to lay on a kid, not that Fusselman does, but she refuses to avoid the subject. The book opens with an invitation to spend a month with a friend's family in Tokyo, and Fusselman packs up her husband and two sons for an adventuresome offer she can't refuse.

Adventure is apt, as one of the defining moments of that trip comes early when her friend takes Fusselman and family to visit Hanegi Playpark. The park is what Europeans may remember from their childhood as an "adventure park." It's a plot littered with scraps of wood, tools and nails for building, three open fire pits and loosely constructed structures suspended from trees to climb and play on. The only caveat is a sign outside the park that simply states: "Play At Your Own Risk."

Savage Park, as it's called, is at first a shock to Fusselman, as anyone with children is sure to understand. This is not so much a landscape of play as punishment lurking everywhere. Potential injuries, ranging from scraped knees to third-degree burns and fatal falls, warp a parent's vision but are a siren's call to their children. Fusselman unleashes her sons into this environment, and in short time sees it for what it is: true creativity, playtime not baby-proofed, which isn't playtime anyway. It's parent time. Time for parents to withdraw from responsibility, allow themselves the luxury of distraction, while their charges are grounded in soft corners, unhurt and uninterested.

Fusselman muses on space and our relationship with it. She notes how disengaged the average person is from their environment, outside of seeing space as a medium in which we try to move about in relative comfort and safety:

What children receive, then, is the notion that space does not exist but people and things do, and it is people and things that must be navigated to, from, and around, and it is people and things that represent hazards or pleasures. They are not told that space itself is a beautiful and powerful medium that we are all connected in and through, and that space can, and should, be felt.

As we read about Fusselman's month immersed in a space in which she cannot read the signage, doesn't speak the language, as she thinks about what space is and what play can be, as families are broken, babies are born and die, she comes to the conclusion that Savage Park is a microcosm for our world. We cannot hide from it, protect ourselves from its rough edges, it being life and death. This is when the memoir and the history and the philosophical leanings of the book suddenly shift into manifesto against false control and for being present and at peace with life's uncertainties:

Americans, I beseech you, it is not as impossible as it seems. We may have an ocean on the east and west, we may have our borders on the north and south, but we are not an island; we are in the world. There is no escaping it: We have been born, we are going to die.

Her rebel yell is worth hearing, and you may as well howl along with it because, if you have kids, they're already hoarsely shouting the same battle cry.

Permit me one final parent's observation, this one more recent, when my wife and I rewarded our kids for suffering through a camping trip in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park with an overnight at the Legoland Hotel in Carlsbad, California. You'd think the desert would be nature's Savage Park, stocked with rocks and dirt and cacti and lizards and scorpions, and so it is, but my three kids have been raised by the television and computer screens. Don't expect a quick metamorphosis. They required the more subtle freedom built brick by plastic brick.

I've been in riots and mosh pits, bar fights and alone at night on dangerous streets, but never have I been more afraid for my life than at night in the Legoland Hotel. The two-leveled lobby has pits of loose Lego bricks, a castle play structure and activities that encourage kids to build in competition and just for fun. The girls are mostly grouped in the castle, while the boys are assembling firearms and, as the night progresses into chaos, their parents retreat to the bar hidden in the back corner.

From one of the pools of Lego bricks emerged a boy with the longest rifle I'd ever seen. He's a sniper. He brings death. But he doesn't have to, really, for it's already here. Even in the sanitized and silly interior decoration of the Legoland Hotel, with its Whoopee Cushion carpets and disco-ball flashing elevators, where fun is manufactured to the highest safety standards, there is hope. Boys will be boys.

Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die by Amy Fusselman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0544303003
144 pages