Soundings

David Gelernter
Monkey Business
Summer 1996

We have learned with sadness that New York City now officially frowns upon monkey bars in its playgrounds. The New York Times ran a picture of an empty jungle gym cordoned off with yellow safety tape, and it was impossible not to think of Shakespeare's bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang. "Monkey bars are disappearing all across America," the Times reports, "as new federal safety guidelines, laws guaranteeing accessibility to the handicapped, and the play industry's self-policing [otherwise known as its `fear of lawsuits'] have coalesced to force them out." Parents are torn between "their natural urges to protect their children and their own idyllic memories."

The Times is wrong: the urge in question isn't "to protect their children"; it's to protect everyone else's children. You protect your own children by forbidding them to climb, not by tearing down monkey bars. Children do get hurt climbing. Is it a foolish risk? Some parents think so and keep venturesome play to an absolute minimum; others allow their children to swim in the ocean, climb trees, ride bicycles, hike in the countryside . . . even play on a jungle gym. Perhaps the monkey bars ought to go because telling a child not to climb on them has no real-world bearing on whether he will or not. But if parents are that helpless, they are the menaces, and we ought to be cordoning them off. If you can't get your children to stay off the monkey bars, how likely are you to get their attention when they are older and braver, and the attractive nuisances are a lot more attractive?

We are a passive society, happy to let the lawyers call the tune. Many of us would just as soon the kids stay home, anyway, and play "monkey bars" on the computer. (You can now buy a children's program called "Treehouse" and another called "Backyard.") Yet we don't lack spunk or daring: when a young girl proposed to fly an airplane cross-country, we were all for it. What we lack is common sense.

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