Paid to Play Pretend by Mary Alinney Villacastin

“You see, this side is a jungle; that side is not.”

“You mean, that Alicia Keys song you were singing along to earlier… ‘Oh, New Yooork – the concrete jungle where dreams are made of – oh, New Yooooork!’ Isn’t she saying that you can imagine this whole city as a jungle – not just Central Park?”

“No, but that side is full of buildings, sidewalks and streets. You already know what’s over there. But in Central Park, there’s trees and squirrels and lakes and playgrounds and you never know what you’ll find when you go inside. That’s what makes it a jungle.”

Riding down Manhattan’s Central Park West with Adelaide, a precocious eight-year-old girl whom I babysit on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, is always a route of adventure. Our method of transportation is typically the scenic M10 bus, stopping somewhere usually in the lower 90’s or upper 80’s, generally to a playground situated off the street.

Despite the consistency of our movement and destination, the first hop off the bus into the park always marks the beginning of uncharted explorations and unforeseeable encounters. A ‘jungle’ as it may be to Adelaide’s raw perception, the actual territory itself far from the metaphor functioning in her imagination.

“Come here, I know a shortcut to the playground!”

Her shortcut is to run through a hill of grass instead of walking along the paved curved sidewalks where other caretakers slowly haul their strollers. She detours from the structured path breaking out in a big smile, so satisfied to have crossed an invisible barrier only perceptible to those grown children no longer in need of pushes on baby carriages. I sense her rushing feeling of freedom, so I do nothing but smile back and run towards her.

Crossing through the shortcut, we come across two friends from Adelaide’s preschool (“Wow, your hair is different!”), a few of her current classmates (“Wanna play the game we played in lunch?”), her old baseball coach from last summer (“I’ll never forget Adelaide, always beating the boys!”), the ice cream vendor (“That will be $8 for the two sugar-free Popsicles, please”), a conventional guitar busker belting Beatles lyrics (“Imagine all the people, living in harmony…”), a shirtless athlete running while talking on speaker phone (“Honey, can you pick up the clothes at the laundromat?”), a cluster of tourists standing aimlessly and unnecessarily close to each other (*clicks*clicks*clicks* of the camera), and a gang of pigeons battling another gang of squirrels for the lunch leftover by a young couple on a wooden bench.

Traversing through partly an urban maze of complex social relations, partly a material network of moving objects in money exchange and partly a natural preserve of living species sprawled over green grass and silver rocks, I, for a quick millisecond, lose sight of my destination.

“I see it, I see it, we’re almost there, run faster!”

Finally, we arrive at the playground.

By all sense of the word as metaphor, a playground is a jungle, a dense landscape of unknown overgrown life, a labyrinth of erupting structures where limbs hang out and dangle off its edges in suspense. It forces those who stumble inside it to cognitively and tangibly activate their senses of livelihood: to play, see, feel, jump, swing, learn and intersect. With only a handful of swings and slides, unruly kids hurry to have a seat on the wild ride.

They say the playground is an icon of childhood; certainly, it is a site to be and a sight to see, a liberating space for the growing body’s energy and mind’s imagination to run free. I am here, anyway, to ensure this child a memorable everyday experience of recreational life at the playground, arguably an increasingly rarer event in the digital age of iPads and techno toy gadgets for sensory distraction. Here, all the fingers, toes and mouths participate in action.

Yet what is the playground as a physical and material phenomenon? I look a little closer.

Visually, it consists of a series of structural elements looped together in three-dimensional form. Each part is overtly molded into shapes, as squares, triangles, triangular rectangles, semi-circles, curving lines, diagonal lines, straight lines, circular poles, rectangular poles, etcetera. Each intersection is organized along visibly varying widths and heights. Each piece is painted with calming hues of primary and secondary colors. Bridges, tunnels, mountains, swings, slides, monkey bars – it all comes together to make an abstract assemblage of chromatic shapes in constructed movement, like a funhouse mirror to the city itself.

In a more materialist sense, from the bottom ground to the highest point, every element in this space consists of wood, iron, metal, rubber, plastic, glass sand and other natural resources. All parts most likely the excess elements of industrial production. All parts most likely produced, packaged, and placed here through the energy of fossil fuels.

Both materially and abstractly, the playground is the work of the capitalist-industrial world process. Children of the metropolis cannot simply flee to the forest for an afternoon adventure; this is what is left over once the concrete and steel have made their way onto the map of human life. Only as a product of surplus resource extraction and excess capital labor could this structure – made of manufactured materials and constructed for leisurely consumption – be understood today as a recognizable form in the modern fields of perception. Perhaps the playground is a closer metaphor to the city than the jungle, after all.

And yet, people do not bring kids here merely for amusement in abstract space. It also marks itself as a place of and for social relations; its function is to be used by all children and in its use, comes to serve an integral, developmental role for society.

Between best friends, complete strangers, classroom acquaintances, close neighbors, boys among other boys, girls with other girls, boys and girls together, older kids, younger kids – a child who roams a playground can construct social relations with almost every other child he encounters. Sometimes all it takes to connect is a question: “Wanna play?”

“—Let’s all do it; let’s all jump on the sand!” Three screaming little girls plop to the floor laughing at fluctuating frequencies. Behind the girls, two boys weakly kick a soccer ball back-and-forth with poor aim. One child gives a strong push on the tire swings where a group of three spin so fast so that their pastel-colored clothes blend with the background of spring flowers.

“—Tag! You’re it! -No, you’re it! -No, I don’t want to play anymore! Let’s go on the hippo. -Ok. -Woo, this is so much fun! I’m on a hippo! -Get off my hippo! -WWWAAAHHH MOMMY!!!”

All at once, I get the impression of a collective rhythm directing the impulsive movements and spastic cries of all these kids, freed creatures of the concrete jungle.

Feeling myself peeled to the visual and auditory happenings as if watching a film at the cinema, I get up from the seat and walk. Around me, I see parents and paid caretakers – mostly the latter – chatting on the benches along the playground edge. In a New York City park playground on the Upper West Side, when a child with light skin runs up to someone with much darker skin, or someone who looks nothing like them at all, or someone who looks too young to have had a child, or someone who unwraps the sugar-saturated candy bar without fussing, one can assume it is the latter category of caretakers with whom the child interacts.

I look over at Adelaide and think about our relationship together. Does she think of me the same way that the other children here think about their nannies? The other nannies whom I meet on playgrounds are often financially struggling immigrants like me, but much older, have an accent, and dress in a foreign style. I am a young Filipina-not-yet-American-citizen college student of anthropology with four babysitting jobs, only one of which brings me Central Park playground encounters twice a week to ponder on the mysteries of psycho-social-material reality.

Despite our differences, I am, like all the others, paid to travel to the playground from the lavish apartment of the employer and provide the child with a classic outdoor-in-the-city afternoon experience; more honestly, us paid caretakers often use this time on the playground sidelines to interrupt the banal patterns of our domestic working day. Together, we sit outside, we chat and we wait for the working parent’s nine-to-five shift to end.

“Hey Mary, try to find me! I hide and you seek!”

Adelaide’s proposition makes me laugh out loud for two reasons:

  1. You, my darling, are in a public playground where everyone is visible. Even the moving cars on the street can catch a glimpse of your running behind into the bushes. To be both here or there, to be hidden or recognized, or to move between the symbolic boundaries constituting the idea of the self – such abstract play can only manifest through individual practice, not around socially-mediated structures that internalize a specific gaze within and of its abstract form. You can’t hide here, just like I can’t hide my skin within predominantly white spaces.
  1. Of course I will seek for you. You cannot hide. Do not forget my dear, I get paid $15 per hour to watch you.