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April 14, 2014

Parks Are Crucial for Children and Other Living Things

Imagine growing up without playgrounds, ballfields and picnics

Kids playing in Chicago's Millenium Park. (Photo by Kymberly Janisch under a Creative Commons license)

When my long-time friend John became a father, he confided to me that the world suddenly was divided into two distinct camps: people with children and those without. This puzzled me; I figured it was his excuse for being out of touch.

After my son was born I understood. Being a parent sets you apart from your childless friends in a number of dramatic ways. They cannot fathom the luxury of those rare occasions when you sleep uninterrupted for eight hours—or even five. They don’t get what’s so overwhelmingly fascinating about the cute thing your kid did last night. And they can’t fully know what common public spaces, especially parks, mean to you.

Before becoming a dad I passed many wonderful hours in Minneapolis' great parks—swimming in the lakes, biking on the trails, and lounging on the grass under the moonlight with my sweetheart (now my son’s mother).

But I can honestly say that after becoming a dad I appreciate my local parks on a whole new level. The playground becomes a lifesaver for any parent with a youngster who needs to burn off energy. Picnic grounds are a godsend for young families whose tightened budgets rule out meals in fancy restaurants. The look of wonder that appears on kids’ faces as they swoosh down a sledding hill or splash in a wading pool more than compensate for the many burdens of parenthood.

My son has met many of his best buddies at the park. That’s where he learned to swim, x-country ski, downhill ski, sail, play baseball, tennis, soccer and ice hockey. It’s where he honed his social skills, organizing neighborhood kids for pick-up games of soccer or capture the flag. The park was also where he first encountered people who seemed different than what he knew—families who appeared to be poor or to be wealthy, kids who spoke in unfamiliar accents and languages.

He is now 19, and still hanging out in parks. Sailing became his passion and he now sails for his college team. This summer he will be a coach at the sailing school in a local park. He can’t imagine life without parks nearby.

And neither can I. After finished this column I suddenly remembered how I first met my old friend John—mentioned above—on the Little League diamond at Blair Park in Urbana, Illinois. I still remind him about hitting a stand up double when he was pitching; he recalls striking me out on three pitches. We’ve been friends ever since