East of Elmgrove

The Plastic Playground Purge

Kids’ connection with nature can be rekindled by clearing neighborhood parks of old toys

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The toys are gone. Well, most of them.

The trikes, push buggies, princess houses, slides, scooters, bats, balls, buckets and other detritus from who-knows-who have been removed from our neighborhood’s parks. Not all the stuff, of course. That would be revolutionary. But one baby step at a time. Let us be grateful that we can now enjoy our public land without gazing upon a sea of plastic.

Our city fathers and mothers finally intervened, removing most of the toys that had accumulated over the years. They should be praised for their courage; hell hath no fury like an angry parent. Rumor has it that some parents are upset and might press on with a protest. Maybe a march from the Baby Park, uh, Gladys Potter Park, on Humboldt to Starbucks on Angell for a café latte with skim. “Get your hands off my Little Tikes Cozy Coupe!” a sign might say.

Four years ago I wrote about the plastic in our parks, saying that it was unfair to litter the land with cast-off toys. Parks are open to all, I said, not just families with children. I recalled taking my two sons to the East Side parks when they were toddlers and how they thrived in the open space with their wit and imagination. A grove of hemlocks was a forest. The gentle hill was a mountain. The knotty tree stumps were castles. The only toys we brought to the park were tricycles and buckets for the sandbox, and we took them home at night. Parents didn’t leave their toys in the park. It just wasn’t done.

The column was not well received by parents. One parent, a guy, sent an email, calling me an idiot and other things I can’t repeat in a family publication. As a former newspaper reporter, I’m used to criticism from readers, but this was over the top. We’re talking about toys in a park, not politics. I can only imagine what the City has faced since it carted (most of) the toys off. Wendy Nilsson, superintendent of the Providence Parks Department, was very gracious to the Summit Neighborhood Association, explaining in a statement why most of the toys in the Gladys Potter, Summit Avenue and Morris Street parks were removed: They pose a safety hazard. She welcomed input from parents, especially as the City considers adding more play features and making repairs to additional structures.

“Instead of adding plastic play equipment we are working to create parks that connect children to nature and open and free play,” she told the Summit group. She went on to say that the City is building berms, log retaining walls and rain gardens and adding rocks at many parks for children to play on and explore. This is great news. I would suggest fields of tulips too, but maybe this is for another time.

In my first column about the plastic parks, I tried my best to be tactful; I didn’t want to offend anyone. There’s one good thing about aging: You tend to speak your mind. Kindness is still vital, but you realize it’s fine to express an opinion that is unpopular. With that thought, let me say this: All the plastic toys should go. Sure, parents can bring toys for their kids to play with during the day, but, please, take them home at night. Put them in your car trunk. Drive off. The next day, take them out and repeat. If you live close to the park, carry the toys. My husband and I did that for years.

We are lucky to have such beautiful parks on the East Side. One evening in March, I sat on a bench in mostly-plastic-free Gladys Potter, listening to the branches crackle in the wind. It was creepy, and every now and then I looked over my shoulder, but I loved being there. I thought of that scene in To Kill a Mockingbird when Scout, wearing a ham costume, and Jem, her brother, are walking home from a school Halloween pageant through Maycomb’s untouched park on a dark night and hear the crunch of leaves. “Hush a minute, Scout,” says Jem. “Thought I heard something.” Footsteps? At Gladys Potter, my imagination was soaring.