My kid is a rule follower. She would rather cut off her leg than be in trouble, wants stories told precisely the same way every time, lives to enforce playground rules, and for most of her toddler years wanted to grow up to be a crossing guard.
This bugs a person like me. I worry that I’m not providing her with opportunities to test boundaries, develop independence, be resourceful, strike out on adventures, make questionable choices, and have the run of our neighborhood. But as a parent raising a five-year-old in a fairly urban environment, I first really need her to stop forgetting to look for cars.
In the meantime, our default is to head to one of the Northwest’s great public parks, beaches, or playgrounds. Yet my worst fears about her stunted opportunities for play were recently reinforced in this stunning accounting of things that are technically illegal for kids to do there.
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Like climbing trees, catching frogs, erecting a fort, turning sticks into light sabers, digging a hole, throwing rotten apples, or making a daisy chain.
There are lots of smart ways to make cities more family friendly, from offering incentives for larger housing units to designing public spaces that work for different ages. I’ll be exploring some of those in a series over the next few months. But here’s an easy place to start.
MIG parks planner Cindy Mendoza, in an article written for the winter issue of the Oregon Recreation and Park Association magazine, compiled this astonishing list of activities that are expressly banned in different park jurisdictions around the state:
- Collecting leaves, flowers, and pine cones: No person shall, within a County park, pick, cut, mutilate or remove from any park area flowers, shrubs, foliage, trees or plant life or products of any kind without written permission therefore from the Roads and Parks Department. (Jackson County)
- Collecting rocks or digging holes: No person shall dig up, deface or remove dirt, stones, rock or other substances nor make any excavation on district property. (Bend)
- Throwing rocks: No person shall use airborne projectiles . . . that may harm district property or people on district property, except as authorized by the Director of Parks & Recreation or designee. (La Pine)
- Splashing in creeks: No person shall fish, wade, swim, or bathe in any Park except in the places designated by the Director for such purposes. (Portland)
Climbing trees: Do not climb trees or allow children to play in trees. You are responsible for all damage. Be careful because most trees are valued at over $1,000. (Grants Pass)
- Catching bugs: No person shall pursue, trap, kill, injure, or molest any wildlife or domestic animals within a Park, except as may be ordered by the Parks Department. (Klamath County)
- Building forts: No person shall excavate, erect, install, place or perform any action related to the placement of any temporary or permanent structure on District property except for approved temporary placement of personal accessories. (Tualatin Hills)
In other examples, the City of Seattle’s prohibition against “capturing, disturbing or annoying any animal” could arguably rule out chasing butterflies or scooping up fish with a net.
The city of Portland’s ordinance expressly prohibits climbing trees or building any temporary or permanent structure in a park, which means no forts or fairy houses. And the parks code of Pierce County, Washington, states that it is unlawful to “play games and conduct general horseplay on crowded swimming beaches.”
I’m not suggesting that park police will actively prevent children for doing most of these things. But the pocket parks and playgrounds that happen to be most convenient to our house don’t exactly entice my daughter to explore her surroundings or build things or make creative use of available materials.
It’s not a girl thing. My daughter is both fearless and athletic. It’s just that she prefers the monkey bars or a climbing structure to a tree. She begs to watch strangers play baseball or ultimate frisbee at the fields near our house, yet the wilder parts of Woodland Park hold little interest. Despite the countless hours she has spent on river banks indulging my trout fishing habit, she still has trouble figuring out how to entertain herself there.
It’s certainly possible to design urban parks—or at least parts of them—where kids are encouraged to muck stuff up and break the rules that might normally apply to a public space that needs to be maintained. These natural play areas encourage them to climb on boulders, build dams, test their aim, engineer with found materials, and learn how to play without a metal structure telling them what to do.
It’s one small, neighborhood-scale way that cities can make themselves more appealing to families. It’s hardly the most important. We need affordable housing units that are appropriately sized for families, zoning laws that allow builders to design family-friendly courtyard housing, public schools in our downtown corridors, streets that provide a buffer between unsteady toddlers and speeding cars, buses that accommodate strollers, and public spaces that do double duty for parents and their kids.
But to start, we could limit the things that we tell our kids they cannot do (because any parent does enough of that) in the places we’ve expressly set aside for them to play. And to design those urban spaces to help the rule followers navigate a world where there aren’t any.