Park Challenge

Posted August 2014:

In April of 2013 my then almost-one-year-old son Maxwell and I embarked on a journey to visit every ‘Lincoln Parks and Recreation’ city park that includes a playground. There are 78 in total. This week, in August 2014, we finished.

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The top two questions I get from friends and colleagues about the park challenge are (1) “Good God, why?” and (2) “Do you have a ranking system?”

“Good God, why?” and “Do you have a ranking system?”

I’m going to try to cover both of those here, but as type-A as I might be (and boy, am I) there is no ranking below. In fact, I’ve actively NOT done that, which I’ll explain. However, you can see our favorites by looking at the photos marked with the double asterisks in the park photos at the bottom of this post.

“Why?” That’s a fair question and one I asked myself a lot around parks 5 through 77.

There are a few reasons so let’s start with the first one: money. A variety of circumstances leading up to our son’s birth left us beyond broke the first year of his life. Not “we can’t go out to dinner or movie” broke, but “the electric company is threatening to shut off our lights” broke. It was humiliating and scary. I won’t go into the ins-and-outs of middle-class-post-professional-degree-poverty here (others have done it much better), but it suffices to say, at the time daycare and certainly enrichment activities just weren’t an option. My current full time position started as a part time position and my days home were boring. We needed something to do and that something had to be free. This also leads to my second “why.”

Whenever someone says “there’s nothing to do here” about Lincoln, I assume they would feel equally as bored anywhere else. Entertainment abounds when you’re open to it. If you’re willing to drop some cash, there is a concert, play, show, film, networking event, and so on somewhere almost every night of the week. But Lincoln is also fabulous for the frugal by choice or the frugal by circumstance. You can’t swing a bat without hitting a free to almost-free community event or public area. This is something I felt was worth exploring further.

The last “why” is simple and obvious to anyone who knows me: I am a goal orientated, list-loving, overzealous moron. Why go to the nearby parks when we could go to ALL THE PARKS?

The last “why” is simple and obvious to anyone who knows me: I am a goal orientated, list-loving, overzealous moron. Why go to the nearby parks when we could go to ALL THE PARKS? I used the Lincoln Parks and Recreation website to look up our nearby parks and saw this long glorious list that could be sorted by playgrounds! The idea dawned on me and I felt it would be a fun challenge. My husband reacted to the initial plan with common reactions to schemes, “you don’t have to do this,” “WHY?” and “don’t freak out if you never finish it, ok?” All fair comments. Later on, Morgan even took Max to several of the parks and has remained supportive, if not baffled, by my drive to finish this.

Anyhow, that’s why and how we got started.

“Which parks are the best?” Certainly we had a range of experiences and had some favorites, but it feels wrong to “rank” them or tell a neighborhood their park is the “worst” one – this is not meant  to reprimand those who have asked me to rank the parks, but a conclusion I came to near the end of this experience.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on the Parks budget, community revitalization, or the effects of poverty on children, but I do know children need a place to explore. Many children need that place to be accessible while mom or dad is at work and available without an admission fee. This experience truly opened my mind to the importance of free public space to a community. Sometimes gross, sometimes pristine, having a place to go, a place that is theirs, matters to kids.

This experience truly opened my mind to the importance of free public space to a community. Sometimes gross, sometimes pristine, having a place to go, a place that is theirs, matters to kids.

This was cemented to me as our own financial and professional lives changed throughout the duration of this challenge. We could suddenly afford to go to Children’s Museum (and it’s a wonderful place – seriously, if you can, visit) but we also kept marching through Lincoln parks. There were still lots of kids at those parks. The parks weren’t always wholesome. Sometimes we found condoms, liquor bottles, underwear, and countless shoes (this isn’t the fault of Lincoln Parks and Recreation, often the cleaning and trash trucks pulled up while we there, but is a reality of any publicly used space). But almost always, we found other kids there playing, regardless of the state of the park.

I didn’t start this as an exercise in learning about and appreciating our community, but that is absolutely what it turned into.

I didn’t start this as an exercise in learning about and appreciating our community, but that is absolutely what it turned into. These parks are spread all over Lincoln and they led Max and me into many different neighborhoods and subdivisions. I know my city better as a result of this challenge. I met a ton of awesome parents and picked up some great parenting tips. I saw some examples of how I would rather not parent my children. We met a ton of awesome kids who played with Max and made our day. We met a ton of rude or unpleasant children. That’s life. I should note, those trends did not adhere to certain neighborhoods. Assholes live everywhere, as do awesome people.

…those trends did not adhere to certain neighborhoods. Assholes live everywhere, as do awesome people.

Max won’t remember this part. He’s too young for a sense of stewardship to the community to be ingrained in him as a result of this. But, damn if that kid didn’t get to play. Over the year and a half I’ve seen his physical skills develop rapidly. He can confidently climb ladders, build with gravel, push the swings, and tackle any slide. He loves to roll in the grass and blow seeds off of dandelion heads. He watched me pick up trash and talk with and worry over other kids. He got an education too, just a different one.park2

Max won’t remember this part. He’s too young for a sense of stewardship to the community to be ingrained in him as a result of this. But, damn if that kid didn’t get to play. …He got an education too, just a different one.

Now, in response to, “what challenge will you do with your second child?” (I’m currently 4 months pregnant) I can confidently say, “Not a one.” This was a lot of work, and while enlightening, the real reason we finished is because the idea of being labeling a quitter enrages my inner competitive sensibilities.

We will continue to patron our nearby parks, pick up litter, brag about our city, and make it a goal to go outside every single day, but lists? I think I’ll take a break from lists for a while so we can focus on our real jobs: playing.

Edited to Add: We were featured in our local newspaper! Lincoln Journal Star, ‘King of the Slides Hits all 78 Lincoln Playgrounds’ , Monday September 15, 2014

Elsbeth Magilton
August 2014