All Commentary
Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Abolition of the Playground

How Regulation Stifles Spontaneous Order and Play

The Bobcat tractor was working its way through a pile of mulch as big as an office building, dragging it from the alley to the playground of a private daycare facility. I asked the crew foreman about the sheer vastness of this mulch pile.

“It’s about the state regulations. There has to be 8 inches of this stuff underneath every play structure.”

“The State regulates even things like this?” I asked. 

“The regulations on playgrounds are 15 miles long,” he said. “They mandate every fastener and bolt, the distance and height of every structure, and, especially, the drainage. Just getting the drainage right takes up most of the time and money.”

“But don’t these regulations inhibit others from opening daycare facilities?” I asked. “You would have to be super-well capitalized just to get one going.”

“I can tell you this. I would never do it.”

Hmm. Maybe stifling regulations partially account for the shortage of childcare facilities, the high prices of tuition to put your child in them, and the constant political pressure for the government to provide more preschool solutions for parents.

But where do these regulations come from? Of course the safety Nazis have never met a regulation they didn’t like, but I’m willing to bet they weren’t responsible for a regulatory panoply that extends way beyond safety concerns. The real origin of these regulations stems from the largest providers, who have every incentive to lock out new entrants and make sure every project they land is pricey. 

The higher the barriers to entry, the easier life is for the established firms. 

The whole scene confirmed all my worst fears. There should be something sacrosanct about the playground. It should be off limits to regimentation and central dictate. And yet the simplified federal manual about every aspect of the playground is 60 pages long, every paragraph presuming that without such guidelines the rest of us would be completely clueless and uncaring about the well-being of children. 

Just think about it. Before the first guidelines were issued in 1981, playgrounds for the whole of human history existed in a state of terrifying anarchy. Since then, the federal government has been all over this sector of life. Each state has its own regulations, so they differ across state lines. In Alabama, wood chips are considered fine, but next door in Georgia, chips have to be made of rubber, so that they heat up like burning hot coals in the summer and ruin the playground experience for everyone. 

Then, of course, there is the overriding hysteria over safety. A child has to be able to fling himself off the highest point straight to the ground and land as if on a giant bed of marshmallows. Here is a question you're not supposed to ask: If there is no real danger, how can kids really learn about safety? Do we really want kids to come to believe that there is no way you can ever hurt yourself, no matter what you do?

And there’s another complicating factor we aren’t supposed to think about: The safer the environment, the more reckless we are encouraged to be. Drive by any playground that offers those huge tubular structures over old-fashioned slides and monkey bars. What you do you see? Kids are dangerously perched atop the tubes, creating their own derring-do tricks so long as they are allowed to get away with it. 

There’s another cost to all these regulations. They codify and ossify the playground, preventing innovation outside the rules. What kinds of play structures might exist if the regulations didn’t codify all existing reality? We’ll never know. Law, legislation, and regulations freeze creativity and innovation. They override entrepreneurship and discovery. They presume that the government has all the answers and there is nothing more to learn or try. 

In a digital age in which most of us carry around a magic question-and-answer box in our pocket, consumer ratings of everything are inescapable, and innovation in things we use every day is a feature we’ve come to expect, such laws and regulations really amount to a ridiculous anachronism. How can far-distant bureaucrats know better than producers, owners, parents, insurers, and kids what achieves the right balance between fun and safety on the playground? That is really something the market should be left to discover. 

What does a good playground have? Rules? Absolutely. But within those rules, there is freedom and choice about most everything else. That’s why the playground is a child’s delight. 

In fact, have you thought of the kids’ playground as a metaphor and preparation for life itself? In the absence of the application of human energy, the structures sit there motionless, lifeless, and static. What makes them fun is the application of human action inspired by the creative imagination. When that element is added, the imagination takes over and you come to play in a world of your own making. The fun you have is human built, and it stems from the beautiful combination of the limitlessness of fantasy and the bounds of physical reality that are impossible to ignore. 

Everyone knows that playgrounds are not fun if you are the only one there. A person sitting alone at a playground is a sad sight indeed, a scene you see in movies when a person is sulky or suicidal. No, the point of the playground is the teeming activity of many individuals that somehow emerges into a micro social order without direction from above. You play with others, each child contributing to the joy of every other child. You learn from others. You are inspired by others. You cooperate with others. And you compete with others. 

Those who can’t do these things peacefully end up being shunned and lonely and are inspired to improve the next day. Those who do this well grow more popular and successful and are looked upon as leaders and emulated. And so evolves the social structure of the playground. 

I’m guessing that you remember some playground experiences from your early years with greater poignancy than classroom time from those same years. Maybe they are bad memories from public school, where there were no owners to work toward the maximum value for everyone. But in a good private playground, with clear rules and maximum choice within the rules, you have an early experience of freedom itself. 

On the playground, we were free. We made stuff up. We made our own decisions. We could excel in what we were great at and eschew what we were bad at. It’s the venue in which we really learned about ourselves and discovered the radical heterogeneity of the human population. It’s where we made and kept friends and discovered how to have disagreements that didn’t result in violence. 

It really is preparation for real life in a free society. Consider the greatest innovations of our time. The smartphone, the world of computer games, the app economy, and even such technologies as oil fracking all result in the impulse to play and the trial-and-error process that is an inherent part of mixing imagination with the physical world. The bailouts, the welfare, the debt that government creates all stand in stark contrast, a huge pile of mulch under us that purports to cushion our fall but really only ends up robbing us of the sweet adventure of life itself. 

Rules, yes, but local ones, private ones, adaptable ones. The new playground environment of centralized rules, public ownership, imposed safety, and regimentation abolishes all play. And in this, it too serves as a metaphor for life under all-around state control.