The post-war era that spawned the Baby Boom was significant in many ways, one of which was that for the first time children in different parts of the country were having similar experiences in school, at home and at play. Television had a big role in the beginnings of an American homogenization, as did the migration from cities to suburbs and the changing attitudes about education.
Play was considered an important part of the education plan since the beginning of the 1900s, and at some point recess was added into the curriculum. Just before the War, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration built thousands of playgrounds around the country. Then after the War, playgrounds continued to take on a similar blueprint. One of the structures that appeared practically everywhere was what we boomers called monkey bars. The term became popular in the 1950s, and originally referred to the ladder-like structure installed in a horizontal configuration about five feet from the ground. Kids would grab the rungs to swing from one end to the other. The swinging motion was reminiscent of the way a monkey moves, and thus the name was attached. Soon, though, the term monkey bars took on a broader definition to include just about any type of metal or wood climbing apparatus intended for children.
The story of monkey bars dates back to 1920 when Sebastian Hinton, a lawyer from Chicago, patented a playground structure called a “Jungle Gym.” It contained a climbing feature as a part of its structure. Hinton, so the story goes, recalled the structures his father had built for him when he was a kid. The senior Hinton had created what some termed a “monkey cage” (or “monkey bars”) out of bamboo. In addition to allowing his children to climb through the structure, his father created a game. Sebastian and his siblings would move through the bars when his father gave them specific x, y and z coordinates within the cage’s internal frame; in other words, the senior Mr. Hinton was teaching his children Cartesian coordinates while they played. It was remarked that the children moved through these bamboo bars like monkeys, but it wasn’t until 1955 when monkey bars became the name for one of the apparatuses.
For Mister Boomer, “monkey bars” referred to the circular cage-like climbing structure that rose about ten feet and culminated on top with a bar that had rounded ends connected to the bars below. There were many differences between these monkey bars and the ones kids play on today. For one thing, they were made of metal tubing — probably stainless steel or aluminum. That meant the bars could get scorching hot in the summer sun, singeing the legs of kids who were wearing shorts. The bars were connected with sleeves that were screwed together and bolted, so though rounded, the ends of the screws protruded below the bottom of each bar, enough to catch a shirt sleeve or back collar if the angle was right. They could also be freezing cold by the time October came around. That meant less time sitting around when your hands got too cold and the temperature of the bars transferred through your jeans to your legs and seat.
Another thing that differs between then and now is what was below the monkey bars. Some playgrounds had installed them over nothing but the ground, while others placed sand below. For others still, it was cement or asphalt as the base.
By contrast, today’s playgrounds are designed to protect children in every way possible. Metal is out, unless it’s covered with some kind of padding. Likewise the ground surface is meant to soften the fall of any wayward climber. Can you imagine what a parents’ group might say if their children were confronted with the playground apparatuses of the 1950s?
The closest playground to where Mister B lived was on the school grounds where his sister had attended elementary classes. It had been built after Mister B and Brother Boomer were enrolled in parochial school. The monkey bars were next to the swing set and the twirling thing-a-ma-jig. Beneath the monkey bars were white rocks, the kind you see in some gardens. A few years later the entire area was paved with asphalt. As with many other things, children were expected to behave in such a manner that they would not hurt themselves or others. For the most part, we did both. Tears, scrapes and a little blood were common on the playground, whether self-inflicted or incurred with the help of a delinquent shove.
When Mister B started kindergarten, the playground at the school he attended consisted only of a slide and swings. His elementary school didn’t even have that. The kids had recess in a parking lot. So Mister B enjoyed climbing the monkey bars with his neighborhood friends after school and in summer at the nearby school playground. He remembers hanging upside down from the top center bar. Some kids would leap from bar to bar, barely touching each as they let go to grab the next, acting more like Tarzan than a monkey. Inside, the cage became a place for co-ed conversation and rest, too. Discussions of TV shows and exactly whose father could beat up whom would fill the air with the certainty of pre-teen knowledge.
Do you have fond memories of climbing on monkey bars, boomers?