The Dame in Spain

Hola Readers — I’m just back from Spain, which seems a little more Free-Range than America. (And Canada. And especially England!) One Madrid playground my son Izzy and I visited actually had a see-saw, something you rarely see (saw) in America anymore, thanks to the fear of bump-induced lawsuits. Izzy declared it the most fun piece of playground equipment ever, after merry-go-rounds. (Another childhood standard on its  way out,  for the same reason.)

The two of us were speaking at a conference sponsored by Audi on the topic, “The Streets Also Belong to Me!” — “Me!” being children. The chief of traffic for all Spain was there, and his country really has made a concerted, successful effort to cut down on pedestrian deaths, mostly by seriously  enforcing the speed limits. The whole idea of concentrating on the real threat to children walking to school — traffic — rather than the perceived threat to children (kidnappers), was incredibly refreshing.

I was embarrassed for my own country, though, when after my talk, the head of marketing for Audi in Spain came up to me and said he’d been to California last summer and didn’t understand us. “Here,” he said, “my wife and I, we always smile at the children. We wave, make them laugh, pat their heads. In America, when we did that, the parents would stare at us.” And he demonstrated the stare.

It was icy.

I hope that as the years go by, we drift more towards the Spanish model of dealing with kids, rather than Spain drifting more toward us. I like the idea of strangers making my kids laugh, and I’m sorry that some of us Americans made these Spanish visitors cry. Or at least wonder why we are all so grumpy and suspicious.

That’s my report from Spain except I must add that everyone dressed really well, and I sure loved all the sidewalk cafes. And why doesn’t America have Fanta Lemon — a really lemony soda — instead of just Sprite?

Adios for now!– Senora Leonora

44 Responses

  1. Yes it is quite embarrassing, isn’t it? We’ll just have to try to make up for all of the freakish people out there. We definitely have our work cut out for us!

    We’ll be in Europe and North Africa for three weeks over the holidays and my 3 1/2 year old will be living it up in their playgrounds.

  2. I love when people talk to my kids like that. It makes me and my kid happy. He can come visit me.

    Apparently Lemon Fanta has been “retired” in the States.


  3. See-saws… I hadn’t noticed they had all gone. I’m so going to make one!

  4. I think you can get the Lemon Fanta in Mexican groceries. or at least, I remember seeing some there not too terribly long ago.

    It would be nice if we could recognize that cars pose as much or greater threat to children as the people walking on the sidewalks. But Lord forbid we should approach things from a basis of statistical logic, or from a point of view that questions our autocentric lifestyles. sigh.

  5. and btw–there are still seesaws in the playground in Tower Grove Park in St. Louis! y’all come visit!

  6. Aww, you’re making me jealous! See saws and merry go rounds and Lemon Fanta, which I also heard great things about when my mother and sister traveled in Europe. We need those here, not to mention the freedom to have at least smile at other people’s kids without being considered odd or a danger.

  7. On the TV show Mythbusters, they briefly mentioned that traditional wooden see saws are no longer made anymore. Remember they are professionals, so don’t try seeing if you can catapult something using a see saw or how high you can swing on a swingset at home.

  8. @LisaS- didn’t know there were seesaws at Tower Grove Park- I’ll have to hop on down there with my kids (if it ever stops raining!) Horray for STL Free-Range kids!

  9. My daughter, (age 7 at the time) LOVED Luxembourg Gardens in Paris where she could ride a zip line (with no helmet and little to no grownup monitoring or interference) and climb a nice, fairly tall (maybe 15 feet or more) Eiffel Tower shaped climbing structure – again without any grownup interference at all. Lots of other fun things to do in addition, but those were the highlights.

    She also enjoyed the pond in the park near the Louvre where kids could rent small sailboats and pushing sticks and run around the pond pushing their boats to and fro. Parents seemed to just rent the boats for the kids and let them get on with it – no hovering, mediating, directing or coaching as far as I could tell. And NOBODY fell in and drowned, nobody got pushed, and it all seemed like a great deal of fun for the kids, and freed their parents to sit in the sunshine on the benches surrounding the pond and read the paper or soak up the lovely atmosphere.

    The children, even mine who does not speak French, managed to sort out games and get along without any help at all – as they SHOULD. It was a great bit of free-range fun for my daughter during a vacation in Paris.

  10. My husband is in the Navy and we are stationed in Japan. Or as I like to call it, Land of the Most Awesome, Terribly Dangerous Playgrounds. There is a two story slide at one place! It was SOOOO FUN! All the playgrounds have see saws, merry go rounds, even zip lines. I actually was chastised for trying to go with my 3 year old on the zip line. (apparently it wouldn’t hold my fat American butt. 😀 )

    Did you know in Japan they let their kids walk, ride the train, or bike to school on their own when they are in the 1st grade? It’s amazing. I love living here. Even on base it’s very small town and people let their kids play outside all the time.

    next time I see a crazy piece of playground equipment I’ll grab a photo and send it to you.

  11. Spain sounds lovely for families. Glad yours had such a good time!

    Last summer, we rented a condo for a week and a half in Puerto Rico. There was a little playground outside out back door that contained both metal slides and see-saws. I think the adults spent more time on the see-saw than the kids did! There also wasn’t a wood chip to be found… My son broke his arm 2yrs ago running across our local playground with it’s mandatory 12″ of wood chips. He hadn’t fallen off anything; he just lost his balance and fell. I wonder how much those wood chips really prevent injury. They sure are a nuisance otherwise.

  12. I took a trip to Spain and Portugal last spring and was amazed at how different it was for children. At a restaurant in Cordoba at around 8pm one weeknight, a mother pushed a stroller into the bar. The kid was maybe three or four, and stayed quiet the whole time. Nobody raised an eyebrow. Later that night, we ran across a music festival. At 11pm, there were plenty of children running around, while their parents focused on the music and paid them very little attention. It was incredibly refreshing. Portugal was much the same.

  13. You have met the only Audi driver who smiles at children. In our village they try and push them out of the way with their fast cars.

    Don’t think Audi are all good because they sponsor one conference in Spain.

  14. Hi, I’ve read an interview in La Vanguardia, a newspaper of Barcelona (Spain). My kids use to go alone from home to school and back again, since they were 9 years old. They use the bus, the tube or the tramway. I’ve been accused of being a bad mother, an irresponsible mother, and worse things. In Spain most kids are kidnapped too by their parents and their parents’ fears. The world is a nice place to live, and we should make it even nicer and not turn it into a frightening place. This is our responsibility.

  15. Please come to England next, Lenore – with a megaphone!

  16. I miss metal slides. The plastic ones are just no good. Your shoes stick and slow you way down (is this the conspiracy behind them) and you generate enough static electricity to run a toaster. Um, I mean my kids shoes stick and …

  17. LisaS and Alli, this is starting to look like a STL conspiracy – I am maybe 6 blocks off the park…. It does have a pretty decent playground from the times I have been past it. My dog loves the small children and I like to let her experience them, even if at a distance.

    Personally, I was always a monkey bars person, too much fun!

  18. I’ve been pleasently surprised by how friendly people in the US and the UK are to my kids. I was expecting thre frosty stares etc. but my experience has been that people are more likely to smile and be friendly to my kids than they were to me when I was childess. Admittedly it’s friendlier in main land Europe but it is in general (and that comes with a whole different set of expectations and obligations – not all of the ones I like).

    I read a lot about people being unfriendly to kids but it really hasn’t been my experience so far. I suspect the Audi guy was suffering the effects of ‘every man’s a pedophile’ syndrome that seems to have taken a grip in both countries. And which is doing family life so much harm.

  19. sightly offtopic: Hey. what about an STL FRK at Tower Grove park in the spring? I am out in Ballwin.

  20. Oh, Fanta Limón! That’s good stuff.

    My family spent a sabbatical year in Spain (in Sevilla, in the south) when I was 7 and my little brother was 3. There was a lot that was hard about that year (three of the four of us didn’t speak Spanish, the private schools were full and the public schools were overcrowded and underfunded and generally bad, our borrowed apartment was neither air-conditioned nor centrally heated, my mom had her purse snatched and lost all the credit cards and her father z”l’s silver fountain pen….), but in other ways it was an amazing year. And some of the things I remember best are going by myself down the street and around the corner to the panadería every morning to buy bread for the day, and playing in the Children’s Park — which was this awesome fenced adventure playground, no grown-ups allowed, with a nice café outside the gate where parents could relax with a cold beer and a good book.

    I’ve been wondering whether Spain is still as laid-back and friendly and loud and warm as I remember.

    But the traffic … the traffic was SCARY. So I’m glad they’re doing something about that 🙂

  21. @ Joe – seconded on missing those metal slides, and as an adult woman in her 30s, I am unashamed to admit that one of my favorite things to do after a bad day is have a good, old-fashioned swing on the set in my neighborhood park. Swinging across the monkey bars is still fun, too.

    As for teeter-totters, there are some ridiculously high and fun ones in a park just outside of Montreal – went there a few years ago with the husband, and they were set so high off the ground that even if my husband and I were perfectly balanced, my feet were still at least 10 in. off the ground (I’m about 5’1″ but that still seemed pretty high). It was awesome – there were pairs of adults, adults with kids, kids only, all enjoying those things. They weren’t made of wood, though, they were painted aluminum.

  22. I know of two parks in the area with merry go rounds, and one with a see saw. Admitedly the see saw one looks like it hasn’t been updated since 1980. But I wonder if we just spend more money on playgrounds in the U.S. And thus have more newer stuff conforming to the modern safety concerns and less of the old stuff.

  23. We have a local playground that has both a merry-go-round and see-saws. I never knew what was so fun about see-saws myself when I was young. It was always hard to find a partner who weighed the same.

  24. One thing that’s sad is the removable of those old rocketships. Remember those? I visited a park back in Yucca Valley CA where my now grown boys used to spend hours playing on the rocketship with the spirally slide. The more adventurous kids would climb on the outside of the rocketship. They were great fun.

  25. It’s not just adults who get the icy stares, unfortunately. My children love babies, especially my son with Asperger’s. I cannot count the number of times they have run up to look at a baby to have the mother whip it away, cover it up, stare at them without responding.
    My children know not to touch a baby without asking. They are polite, if enthusiastic. I get not wanting older children to touch or breath on a newborn, but if your baby is so frail, why are you out in public?
    And why can’t you politely say to interested children “I’m sorry, the baby is sleeping” or “I’m sorry, big kids carry germs we don’t want”.

  26. @Jan–the funnest thing about teeter-totters was not using them for see-sawing,(that is pretty boring) but walking on them. You step on the seat that’s on the ground and walk toward the other end. The big crash when you reach the tipping point is thrilling! And the best way to enjoy a metal slide is to bring some waxed paper with you to sit on– it makes you slide much faster. Thrilling playground adventures that double as lessons in basic physics–what’s not to like?

  27. Totally off topic, but my daughter went to Europe a few years ago, and came back RAVING about Fanta Lemon! Everytime she is at the grocery store she complains about no Fanta Lemon in the US.

  28. There is hope, even here in the US. A brand new playground opened near us with BOTH a see-saw (with two seats on each end even) AND a merry-go-round (wheelchair accessible no less), In the same park. Add a steep artificial hill that the kids (and grownups too) lubricate with sand and slide down on wooden blocks and cardboard. Metal slides too, I think, and lots of “dangerous” stuff to climb on. I admit I was worried when they started the renovation that we’d get a bland “safe” park, but the builders, planners, and the city (for once) did a great job.

  29. p.s. Gini my European soda of choice (

  30. “the rocketship with the spirally slide”

    Oh, yes, I do miss that. I had one at my elementary school, where my daughter now attends, and it, and every other beautiful thing (the rickety moving wooden bridges. the rubber tire mazes, the wooden balance beams, that thing that just hung from a chain and you tried to stand on until you fell off..) are gone, replaced by a sparse amount of equipment separated by great seas of mulch. Is it even possibly to play lava tag on a playground these days?

  31. There are still a lot of older playgrounds with metal slides and see-saws. They aren’t as popular, though, because most don’t have the cool climbing castles or other updated adventure stuff; they just have swings, slides, and teeter-totters–oh and those wierd spring riders. (There is one park near where I used to live that has a really tall (like 3 stories) slide, but that’s a special trip.

    It’s not all bad, you know, the changes to playgrounds. Mostly, as a kid, I liked playgrounds with structures and a variety of stuff that made it fun for imagination play. At 41 and getting ready to chase my son around playgrounds, I suspect we’ll prefer the ones with the cool climbers, even though I hate the mulch *itch itch* they put down. ‘Cos they are just more fun. Unfortunately, they usually don’t have grownup-capable swings at those. *sigh* On the other hand, if you have to run around after kids, there’s something to be said for the rubber-tiled playgrounds; the tiling is really fun to walk on and less hard on adult knees.

    I do miss merry go rounds but I can’t imagine park facilities folks do; they seemed to have a lot of potential for breaking or getting clogged underneath.

  32. Encouraging to hear of a conference addressing the problems that traffic creates for kids–and, boy, in most European countries, drivers really move (very scary sometimes)!

    Not sure what to say about the comment re the parents in California. Here–staid Midwest–people smile, address kids often, and it’s usually received well. Head-patting…? Don’t see too much.

    Could it be California?? I spend a good amount of time in the Bay Area, and while I LOVE it’s tolerance of individuality and all that, it has struck me the last few times that I’ve visited that people are not what I’d call ‘friendly’. Tolerant, yes, friendly, no. Friendly is something else again…

  33. Oh yes..I too long for Fanta Limon here in the states — especially tasty mixed with some red wine. Mmmm…

    Anyway, I’ve lived in Spain (I love that country!) and I loved the way that they interact with children. They are seen as valued and loved no matter who’s kids they are…even by people who (gasp!) don’t have children! They think nothing of giving kids a kiss on the head, playing with them, making them laugh… Instead of here where children are either seen as a nuisance or the adult as a potential pedophile or with helicopter parents giving you dirty looks. It’s refreshing!

    That being said, I was a witness to a child being hit by a moped there so it’s nice that they are working on the actual dangers — traffic!

  34. Spain sounds dreamy. Even dreamier with playgrounds that have see saws and merry go rounds.

    Does anyone have a child that goes to school (public at least) where there are see saws or even more dangerous, SWINGS? I think every recess playground in our area has the new fangled plastic bubbly type of equipment. Gone are the swings, the slides, the see saws, the tether ball. I suppose jump ropes will be barred soon too.

    How about high dives at your local swimming pool? I don’t think those exist anymore. Again, a lawsuit thing. Wonder what the research says about high dive deaths.

    Strangers: my kids love to ride down the highway waving frantically to strangers as we pass other cars. They get the biggest kick out of it when someone actually waves back!! Its about 50/50. Its nice to see other folks smile as a result of the silly kids in the backseat:)

    Happiness. Pass it on!

  35. @welcraftedtoo
    I would say Californians are very unfriendly towards children *and* the parents.
    Parents are called “breeders” and are evil contributers to global warming. Children are viewed as suckers of state tax dollars.
    I traveled around USA, and the world, and nowhere people would degrade me as a mother with a word “breeder”. In CA it happens all the time.

  36. Spain.

    Ten years ago, I took my 5 year old son to Seville for a family vacation (sin su madre). It was an unforgettable experience. We were accepted wherever we went — parks, restaurants, bars, beach, church.

    The Spanish should be proud of their culture and social relationship with children. We could learn much from it.

  37. If you like the Fanta Lemon, try Kas Lemon. I found it when I was in Spain, and I liked it better.

  38. My daughter is becoming 18 this month. We live in Barcelona, Spain. She has been travellig on underground and bus before she was 10. This is unusual also here, so I also had to front critics. She started to travel by plane alone to the States at 15, on a youth exchange program, to families we didn´t really know, but where just airline employees like me. She uses staff tickets, that means on waiting list, so sometimes she had troubles that she could mainly solve by herself, and if not, we were always on the mobile phone for help (great tool, not only to control them !). Now, she fluently speaks english and german, and I think would be able to take care and raise her sister of 10 if something fatal happens to daddy and me. Don´t thing I didn´t feel fear, had doubts and becomed worried sometimes, but I front them willing to be a good mother, and now I have an very mature independent girl, with a lot of tools and experience to front life. Other mates same age are far behind her.

  39. An interesting link for you:

    Click to access mon_sobre_rodes_albert_casals.pdf

  40. @nor-cal–You have my sympathy; I can’t imagine how awful that must feel!

    By way of comparison and a bit of levity, here’s a story that you might appreciate.

    My parents, like many couples in the post-war ‘greatest generation’, had four kids and would have had five (!) if my mother hadn’t miscarried. Didn’t think anything of bringing that many kids into the world, even though it was more than their own parents had had and even though my mom clearly wasn’t the super-mom type, as so many of their peers were doing the same and busily creating all of us boomers.

    Along comes growing environmental awareness in the 70’s and 80’s, and my dad, being the intellectually curious and up to the minute guy he was, starts reading about global warming, population concerns, and so on. Then in the late 80’s, I have my two–just two!–numerically-correct kids.

    My newly environmentally enlighted father–producer of four ‘breeders’–pulls me over one day, after the birth of my second, and sternly urges me–the mother of two–not to have any more kids, as it wasn’t ‘good for the environment’. My jaw dropped, and I quickly shot back that population issues were one problem that could not be blamed on the boomers!

    Moral of story? There is no person more self-righteously annoying than the newly convinced.

    And, it sounds like you, in ‘Nor-Cal’, have run into too many of the converts. I hope things improve.

  41. If you really have a jones for strongly lemony soda like product, might I suggest San Pellegrino Limonata 🙂 I don’t think it is strictly soda, and may be a sparkling juice based beverage, but it’s tangy, slightly sweet, and I think fizzy without being overly carbonated.

    Also, long time listener first time caller.. 😉

    A long time ago, in this very same country, my sister travelled all by her self, at the ripe old age of 8 to Tennessee to visit one of our Aunts. Granted, we (Mom, Dad and I) watched her get on the plane, and get walked down by a flight attendant, and she probably got the same service at the other end before getting picked up by my Aunt, but apparently that would get you yelled at, threatened, and/or tasered these days. Of course, my sister is still fiercely independent. Good luck raising a kid like that these days… 😦

  42. We lived in Spain three years, and overall it was SO much more kid friendly. We had our first there and it was great to breastfeed anywhere and everywhere, without a cover, and not only did we not get any dirty looks but no one was afraid to talk to me during a feeding, check out the baby, and so forth.

  43. @Michele: High dives do exist. McClure Park in Tulsa still has one.

    I am currently a 17-year-old boy in Tulsa, OK. Understandably, most of my playground experiences were with the new plastic stuff. Back when I was 4 years old I often went to Whiteside Park, which had a mix of fiberglass and painted wood. I remember a boy named Joe who used to be there many times… he could swing really high on the swings which were still the old chain kind (albeit with a plastic/rubber seat; and they were only 8 or 10 feet tall). AFAIK they still have the same equipment today, including the plastic 10-12′ straight and steep slide (not too many slides are straight anymore). Another park, Darlington, had and still has all-metal equipment (though it’s a really small structure). However, LaFortune is the one I want to write about here. As late as 10 years ago they had old wooden equipment (with metal slides and bars). I remember some very high monkey bars (maybe 8 feet?), a swinging bridge (had to be pretty small… maybe 10′ long tops), and 3 slides, each bigger than the other (top one was maybe 10 feet). Back in 2000 or 2001 or so they changed to new plastic equipment. At the time I was very excited since they had changed from a relatively small structure to two large ones. In 2004 I had the opportunity to visit a playground untouched by litigation-fearful government. My great uncle was about to pass away, and the family took a 1-day trip to Aurora, MO, to see him one last time. Apparently not wanting me to see him in his poor condition, my mom found a playground and told my dad to play with me there (I was 10 at the time). That is an experience I will never forget… there were an old-style metal seesaw, a metal merry-go-round, and a very steep metal slide that had to be at least 15-20 feet tall. Being accustomed to plastic all my life, I was at first afraid of the big slide. From what I recall I eventually got on it and loved it… as well as the other stuff there. From what I see on Youtube some places still have this old-school equipment… but they are mostly in other countries (Germany pops up a lot). After reading this article I realize what has truly become of society today. This is not simply a problem with playgrounds, it extends to all aspects of daily life. The American legal system is becoming too constricting to organizations, often doling out six-figure amounts for accidents that deserve more reasonable payments of zero to four figures (case in point: Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants 1994, aka the Coffee Case). Though consumers may think they are getting a better product from the additional regulations, they are the ones who are really paying for them. Thus the governments force unintended mandatory “insurance policies” upon the people… businesses have to pay more and skimp on the product to meet regulations, and the consumer ends up paying for a few people’s troubles in the form of increased prices or inferior products. Change needs to occur in the law schools before it can occur on the playground.

    If you are older (or have relatives living in rural communities), you may remember the slides and swingsets being bigger than they are today. Many probably tell you that “you were smaller, everything was big”. In most cases they’d be right. However, in this one solitary case, I can confidently say that they are wrong and you are right. While I’ve never (as far as I can recall) seen a 12-16′ swingset, there are [hard-to-find] pictures that prove that they existed. As for the slides, just read my post. Despite the extreme difficulty in finding pictures, I am absolutely certain that they existed (and still do, though straight slides of all kinds over 8 feet are a dying species).

    One particular piece of playground equipment that intrigues me due to its unique history is the Giant Stride. Unlike most playground equipment, these were mostly removed in the 1950s, long before the Age of Litigation began circa 1984 (date chosen on purpose). Google “980 playground equipment” and read the comments on the blog to see more about this intriguing piece of equipment… sure it was probably the most dangerous piece, but it was also the most popular in places that had it. Supposedly Sunrise Park in Paris, Illinois, still has a couple (unless they were removed after the 2008 ruling that any park with one automatically loses any lawsuit related to playground injuries, regardless of the scope of the injury and regardless of what equipment actually caused the injury)

    Here’s a link:

    If they’re still there, anyone care to go and take a video for Youtube?

    Also, just something I’m curious about. After reading many comments on blogs, I get the feeling that kids back then were more resilient than kids today. Kids back then could fall four feet without it hurting much, and eight feet without getting more than a scraped knee, maybe a sprained wrist at the worst (and often these high falls of 10′ or so were from the aforementioned Giant Strides). Kids in the old days used to jump from 10-foot barn roofs for fun, and one particular comment on another blog described kids purposely jumping down 20-30 feet to slightly inclined ground and getting little more than a sprained ankle. I don’t know how they did it… there wasn’t a secretly required Parkour class in elementary schools back then, was there?

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