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Omaha Magazine

Safety Last: Thrilling—but Dangerous—Playgrounds of Yesterday

Mar 01, 2022 11:47AM ● By Kara Schweiss
vintage photo of children on playground merry-go-round

Photo Provided

Anyone visiting a childhood home or elementary school will probably say that things seemed bigger in their memories. The difference in visual perspective between children and much-taller adults can explain some of this—or maybe it’s the psychological effect of expanding one’s metaphorical horizons.

Some things, however, really were grander in decades past, like taller, steeper, and faster pieces of playground equipment. 

Pat Slaven, a retired park planner for Omaha’s parks and recreation department, said the desire for greater safety led to the demise of old standards like tall jungle gyms and monkey bars over a thin layer of sand, metal slides that could heat up to 189 degrees (according to the University of Northern Iowa’s National Program For Playground Safety), swings that flung riders nearly horizontal, and spinners with centrifugal force that left children desperately hanging on.

“As we renovated playgrounds, we had to replace all equipment that no longer met national safety standards,” he said. “More often than not, this wasn’t very popular with the public—basically, parents who grew up with the old equipment.”

Tall “rocket” climbers, usually three levels high, were especially popular, Slaven said. 

“Kids loved them. Some hung out of the uppermost level like a clubhouse; much consternation when we had to take them out,” he said. However, he added, some parents disliked the climbers because they couldn’t fit through the narrow openings of platforms when attempting to retrieve stubborn children.

The climbers are gone from public parks today, but “I believe there’s a part of one of these rockets at Rockbrook Park. They readapted it to be an entrance feature, next to the sign on Paddock Road,” Slaven said. 

Sharon Mann has fond memories of what other kids could only dream of: living in a park. Her family occupied the apartment atop the pavilion in Benson Park when her father, Robert Polen, who worked for the city in the 1950s and 1960s, served as caretaker. 

“I lived at the park about six years but my family was the caretaker for over 20 years,” she said. 

Mann said her favorite feature was the park’s tall wooden swings.

“It was so much fun to see how high you could go and then jump off the swing and not get hurt. I still love swinging…it is very relaxing,” she said. “I made many friends down at the swings that first summer and I have stayed in touch with many of them to this day.”

Benson Park has a full complement of contemporary play structures today, but the swing set Mann remembers from more than 50 years ago is long gone. At least one similar set still survives.

“Spring Lake Park in South Omaha still has one of the tall swing sets. It was repainted and probably [given] new swings when the park was renovated about five years ago,” Slaven said. 

Other legacy equipment is scattered around the community, he added. 

“Country Club Park and Miller Park both have metal animal climbers that were kept when those playgrounds were renovated and simply repainted. These were unique enough that neighbors wanted to keep them. Miller Park’s is a giraffe, I think Country Club’s is a spider,” he said. “The merry-go-rounds—they went by many names—were also popular. Though they were deemed unsafe due to speed and the potential for children flying off, they were eventually redesigned with a hydraulic speed control. There is one at Florence Park; it looks very similar to the old ones.”

See-saws, also called teeter-totters, evolved to a safer form that prevents children from crashing to the ground. Today’s slides are usually plastic with taller side rails, and are lower to the ground as well as less steep.

“Really tall slides were once popular. There is a photo of one from Hanscom Park at The Durham Museum photo archives,” Slaven said. Using the people in the photo for scale, the height of the slide appears to be around 20 feet, about as high as the roof of a two-story house. “You’ll see why it was deemed unsafe. But so fun!” 

More hazardous pieces exist in memory only, like rotating swings.  

Slaven recalled that, “This was a T-shaped structure with a swing on either side of the post. Kids would sit in the swings and parents or other kids would pull the swings to pivot around the post. Eventually the kids were sent very high and fast due to centrifugal force.”

He continued, “This was my personal favorite. Not so much for my nephew, who lost his grip and flew out of the seat, thus illustrating why they all had to be removed, eventually.”

Playground nostalgia is strong, judging by the more than 100 responses to an inquiry posted in the Omaha History Club Facebook group. Some members shared good memories of steep slides, various spinning contraptions, and climbing structures all over town—along with some less-fun recollections of injuries; others talked about modern-day holdouts like tall metal slides at Glenwood Lake Park in Glenwood, Iowa, or merry-go-rounds in La Vista’s Central Park and Papillion’s City and Trumble Parks. 

Several people said they’d love to revisit those playgrounds, and bygone days, where thrill was emphasized over caution. 

“My own personal wish, while we were replacing all these fun things with safer ones, was that we install these in a park for adults only,” Slaven joked. “They would, of course, have to sign a waiver before playing.”  

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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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