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Summer Playground, Learning to Lead With a Whistle and a First Aid Kit

by on May 13, 2013 6:49 AM

I came across a box of old pictures the other day and found an envelope entitled “playground.” In it, were pictures taken the summer of 1981 when I was a Centre Region Parks and Recreation playground leader. It brought back many memories and a longing for days past and a different way of life.

For college students who were looking for a summer job with no weekends and regular hours, the summer playground leader job was one that fit the bill. The money wasn’t great but it was easier than waiting tables and not as boring as lifeguarding. I had been a summer playground kid myself so the idea of a “Park Leader” t-shirt and a whistle made sense in my life cycle of experiences.

Summer playground. Before structured play dates, the insanity of youth sports, childhood obesity and kids plugged in and tuned out, summer playground was how many of us spent our summers.

Back in the good old days, playground leaders were assigned to most of the neighborhood playgrounds to run activities, play games, do crafts, etc. Each week we had “theme” activities: Wild West Week, America’s Birthday, and of course, Carnival Week. We had mimeographed calendars on color paper sent home outlining activities, what to wear, and to help everyone get excited for the special program for the following week. Mrs. Brown came once a week to lead special crafts.

At the end of the summer, all the parks came together for the infamous Peanut Carnival, held in the SCAHS South Building parking lot, with booths, prizes and one last hurrah before school started.

Did I mention that it was free?

In the summer of 1981, I applied to be a playground leader. I was assigned to the Overlook Heights “tot lot” on Clinton Avenue every day from 9:00 AM to noon and then Suburban Park (also in Overlook Heights) from 1:00-4:00. Kids would come from all over the neighborhood, on foot and on bikes, and were often waiting when I pulled in.

We would do activities in the morning and then, after they had gone home to eat lunch, many of the kids would travel to the other end of the neighborhood for afternoon park. On Wednesday nights, we had Family Night at Suburban where we would organize hot dog roasts and other family activities.

I drove out to Pennsylvania Furnace on Fridays for Adventure Park with another group of kids whose parents had kicked in the money for a special program that involved field trips.

I think I made $3.35 an hour that summer.

My co-leader that summer was a guy named Will who was an engineering major at Penn State. It was probably the first time that I noted a difference in strengths of people who choose specific majors or careers. Will may have had me in math and other technical skills but I could run circles around him when it came to helping kids have fun.

Will’s favorite activity was a “Let’s see who can swing the longest” competition which allowed him to lounge in the grass in the shade of one of the big trees.

On the first day of park, we arrived with blank registration cards and a 5X8 metal file box, a whistle and a key to the equipment shed. No online registration or release forms. No cell phones. If a kid got a bee sting or scraped a knee, we had a first aid kit but usually managed it with “You should run home to have your Mom check it and then come right back.”

Most of the kids who came to park had a parent or grandparent at home. Some of those parents came on the first day and offered to help or bake cookies or to ask if their toddlers could come with an older sister or brother. We had several 3-year-olds that summer who were park regulars. (One of those little ones later ended up in my classroom at Penn State and is now a mother herself -- and is a friend on Facebook).

It wasn’t all fun and games at the playground. We served as babysitter, referee, equipment manager and social worker. There were two little guys who we knew would be there every day, regardless of the weather, because Mom and Dad both worked outside the home.

If there were peanut allergies, ADHD or other issues we either didn’t know or it didn’t matter. We broke up fights, spent a lot of time reminding people about taking turns, kept a mental list of who was next to be the team captain and listened to personal stories about home life that were alternately hilarious and sometimes sad.

I still smile when I think of how excited kids can get when regular kickball becomes Wild West Kickball with the only difference being a loud “Yee Haw” when coming in to home base.

I learned how to set up a behavior modification program that summer. We had one little guy whose home life was very troubled; his use of profanity and his affinity for hitting and spitting meant that the other kids (and some of the parents) didn’t think he should be allowed to come to the playground.

We set him up on a reward-spend program with stickers. If he was able to hold it together, he could use his stickers earned to pick the activity or be the team captain. Although he had good days and bad days, by the end of the summer, I was proud of my efforts to help a troubled six year old be a part of something. Many years later, I read that troubled little boy was charged with attempted murder.

I believe that summer planted the seed for a career spent working with people with disabilities.

I learned a lot that summer. I learned to prepare for anything. On overcast days, we would have 5 kids. On other days, for favorite activities, it could jump to 50. I learned that enthusiasm is contagious and sometimes leadership is about the “performance” in front of the group.

I learned that something little – like letting someone wear the whistle – can make a difference in that person’s day. I learned that even too-cool-for-school pre-teeners can have fun when you give them permission to let their guard down.

I learned the power that adults can have in the lives of children.

A community-building program like summer playground would be almost impossible in today’s culture. Our fears, our helicopter parenting, our budget restrictions and our “pay to play” mentality have largely killed the community playground system.

It’s sad because there is nothing like a game of kickball on a summer day at a neighborhood park. Bigger kids playing with little ones. Kids learning how to plan, negotiate and share. Free play with no coaches or sports parents, just adults who throw out ideas and then stand back and make sure no one gets hurt. A sense of community.

The summer playground was a rite of passage and a piece in the development of who would we come to be.

Yee Haw.



Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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