A beautiful playground may challenge lure of TV

June 09, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the Golden Age of Skinned Knees, there was no Nancy Castaldo. Not in my neighborhood, anyway, and probably not in anybody else's. Not on the playgrounds of yesteryear, when you skinned an elbow or a knee and kept going, played ball, skipped a rope, threw a hopscotch heel, played tag, until somebody shrieked you home to dinner. Not a grown-up ever showed a face in such a world.

Now comes Castaldo and about a thousand of her friends in Bel Air. Playgrounds may never be the same, nor the notion of communities doing for themselves instead of waiting around for governments to diddle their way into action.

"It's an inspiration," says Sandy McLhinney, who's speaking because Castaldo's a little busy at the moment overseeing various hammering and clopping so that this new playground, out there on a half-acre of previously bare ground near John Carroll High School, can be finished by dusk today.

After five days of labor.

After two years of planning.

After $100,000 in private donations.

After rallying about 1,000 people to do something wonderful for their children and, not to be minimized, themselves.

There they've been since the middle of last week, "like an old-fashioned barn-raising," McLhinney says, building a place for their children to play.

"Nancy Castaldo has done a lot of traveling, and she saw these great playgrounds," McLhinney was saying at week's end. "She said, let's build one here. We got six elementary schools participating in the design process, and this is what we came up with" -- not only space to run and jump, but gardens, pavilions, nature trails, a rubber bridge, a bouncing crab, a tree fort, a castle maze, all things on which a child can construct an imagination.

The town of Bel Air had a nice piece of property just lying there, but no money to build on it. Castaldo, a mechanical engineer at Aberdeen Proving Ground with two small children, said, let's raise the money ourselves.

"This," said Sandy McLhinney, "is hometown America at its best. Things like this don't usually happen in the '90s. It's nice to see that compassion and children are still at the center of people's priorities.

"Guys from BGE have taken vacation time to do electrical work. Nurses have given free time. Neighbors have made food for the volunteers. A Chinese restaurant sent over chop suey. McDonald's sent cheeseburgers. We've had Army National Guard volunteers. We had a lady with braces on her legs, who could barely walk, who came up the hill and sat there soaping screws so they wouldn't split when they were hammered into the wood. And lots of kids, too."

Which naturally gets us back to the Golden Age of Skinned Knees.

In my playground outsider's experience -- a playground outsider being any grown-up, anyone past the automatic reflex of coming home and heading straight for the neighborhood schoolyard -- I see the Golden Age of Skinned Knees having vanished. Meaning, I drive past playgrounds in glorious weather now, and where is everybody?

Memory has a way of mixing up the facts, but in my recollection, my neighborhood playground, at Grove Park Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore, the place was always brimming with kids of every age.

Today I see emptiness, and naturally I have a theory. Two things have killed the playground culture: TV and air conditioning.

Previous generations never knew of serious daytime TV. It was there, sure, but it was "Queen for A Day" and such, and not MTV where adolescents watch and see dramatized versions of the people they imagine themselves to be.

And air conditioning? Who knew from such a thing? But, in the past few generations, what kid ventures into the heat when there's comfort inside a mall?

Have such kids ever heard of grass stains? Do they know of dirty sneakers? Have they known the joy of a skinned knee with a scab that could last an entire summer?

In other words, having rallied this community in Bel Air, having lifted the hearts of a thousand volunteers taking a sabbatical from their own air-conditioned lives, having created this wonderland -- can they get the kids show up?

"If one child participates for every group of parents that has put this thing together," says Sandy McLhinney, "it'll be very utilized. Listen, these kids have been involved from the beginning. They participated in the design process. They've been making posters. They've been making pizzas to raise money, raffling tickets. Lots of them have helped out.

"Bel Air's got a real proliferation of young children. Our recreation leagues are filled. We think this will be a huge hit."

It already is. It's brought a community together. It's a collective snub of the nose at air conditioning, a brave new alternative to future MTVideots. It's a new Golden Age of Skinned Knees, maybe. What a concept.

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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