This blog post could start like a silly joke. A Yorkshire lass, a Scot, a Brazilian, and a New Yorker go with their children to the playground … But, given I’m still working on the punchline, let me provide the context. Today was beautifully sunny. The advent of spring in Berlin means the advent of the after-KiTa, after-school playground season – the season when children of all ages hurl themselves around climbing frames and swings, or dig for hours in the sand whilst parents lounge on benches around the sides. And, of course, on a day like today, we trundled over the road from our international KiTa and ensconced ourselves in a sunny spot. (I’m the one from Yorkshire.) Being there in this diverse expat group was revealing – because, despite our cultural differences, we shared a common understanding of the very Berlin-specific approach to playgrounds.
Whichever nationality you want to take, we all agreed that Berlin playgrounds are not for the fainthearted. Climbing frames soar high, way up high, over adults’ heads. Monkey bars are far apart even for an adult stretch. Zip wires send children whizzing across the sky. Swings are arranged for maximum excitement. Even the small corner playground, slotted into a former bomb site, between two towering apartment blocks with those tremendous stretches of windowless wall, will have a tummy-turningly lofty tower, complete with risky fire man’s pole. Yes, Berlin playgrounds are adventurous by most international standards. We were, we all said, surprised, often-times seriously concerned, but overall delighted by the daring feats on offer for our children.
Playgrounds in New York, I was told, are almost entirely cushioned with black spongy rubber – unless you go to a specific adventure playground, where you might get artfully carved trunks of trees curated into stylish yet challenging walkways. In the UK, damp wood chipping may be there to break your fall, but the chances are you won’t be climbing higher than the roof of a standard car. In Scotland, you find more baby swings than normal ones. Perhaps it is the sand in Berlin – absorbing all the impact of big falls rather than the child’s head, as would be the case with rubber, the New Yorker observed – which facilitates this (and means your apartment resembles a beach hut after any playground visit).
We also agreed that German children are left to their own devices at the playground, far more so than in any of our own native lands. Look around and you’ll soon notice that few parents hover anxiously (and those that do are probably expats) under the ludicrously high rings, or indeed bark orders at a child climbing up a tree well beyond the parent’s reach. The children here are free to roam – and free to get frequently injured by other freely roaming children swinging higher than you possibly imagined or trampling unconcerned on each others’ sweet little fingers as they scurry up yet another ladder.
The only point at which this thesis of the laissez faire German vs. the helicopter expats, who hover and catch and carry and console, breaks down is that for all their easy-come-easy-go approach to playgrounds, Germans will never allow their children to be under-dressed when outside – put another way, all these little Germans are exceedingly well wrapped up. (Rather a sweeping cultural generalisation here but it is based on many observed anecdotal facts). Woe betide the German child who asks to take off his or her hat when the temperature is below 15C, or strips down to their bare feet to enjoy the feeling of all that lovely sand between their toes. By contrast, we expats don’t care. Our children are hatless, sockless and even t-shirt and trouserless, as soon as the sun really starts to shine.
So my proposition to you, drawing on these combined expat observations, is this. If you find yourself with your children at a playground in Berlin, the children will absolutely love it and come home exhausted and thrilled. You – you will have to force yourself onto the bench and accept that you’ll spend your time veering between sharp intakes of breath as your children stretch themselves from one impossible point to the next and then feeling neglectful that your children are the only ones in just a t-shirts and shorts whilst the locals wear waterproof trousers, jackets, and stripy hats. Be prepared.