12th December 2016
The two young brothers seesawed in Riverside Park recently, testing and tormenting each other, absorbed in a playground ritual familiar to generations of children.
What they did not know was that they were in one of the last places in New York City where they could seesaw. Once ubiquitous in the city’s hundreds of public playgrounds, as they were around the country, the seesaws adults remember have largely vanished from the city and much of the nation because of safety concerns and changing tastes.
The old wooden seesaws that pivot on a central fulcrum have survived in only one city park, park officials believe — the Classic Playground at Riverside Park at West 74th Street. And just north of there, at River Run Playground at West 83rd Street, are three metal-fulcrum seesaws that were installed at the community’s request in the 1990s. They are lower and safer, rising only 32 inches off the rubber play mat at the highest point.
The history of New York City playgrounds is intertwined with the seesaw. Charity associations gave seesaw demonstrations when playgrounds were introduced at the turn of the 20th century. They were standard fixtures in the more than 600 playgrounds constructed between 1934 and 1960 under the direction of Robert Moses, along with monkey bars, sandboxes and slides, according to the city Parks Department.
But federal safety guidelines for playgrounds, which were created in 1981, began to limit their use. The older seesaws were wooden planks that often hit asphalt directly, leading to occasional tailbone and spinal injuries, falls and pinched fingers, not to mention splinters. Children could slam each other by dismounting suddenly. Playgrounds that retained old seesaws were exposed to lawsuits.
Current federal guidelines state that fulcrum seesaws can be installed safely if car tires are embedded under the seats and adequate space is left around them in case of a fall.