Lois M. Collins: Neighborhoods need places for teens, tweens

Published: Thursday, Oct. 20 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

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The little playground with the curved brown plastic slide is alive with kids from about 20 seconds after school lets out until the sun goes down, and the security guard who patrols the complex starts sending the kids back to neighboring houses and apartment units with vague references to a curfew he's invented to make his job easier.

Besides the slide, there's a short monkey bar set I could barely clear if I stood up straight and a couple of swings that hang low to the ground so that little legs can boost their young owners into the plastic-ribbon seats.

The kids, for the most part, are too tall to enjoy the equipment, though.

In my neighborhood, this nearby playground is where teenagers congregate, moving patiently out of the way so that the littler folks who occasionally venture in can slide and whirl and play.

Make a list of things my neighborhood lacks and a place for teens and tweens would likely top the list. So we dodge kids on skateboards as we drive to our homes or maneuver our way through grocery parking lots. And when our older children ask if they can go "to the apartments," we nod our heads.

"Hooligans," an elderly man shouts at some of the kids as he drives past, and I fight the urge to wave him down to tell him my girl is an excellent student who has never, in her entire life, given me heartburn of any sort.

The kids hang out in this apartment playground because it's all they have nearby. The apartment complex owners tolerate it because the most serious crime these youths commit is some tentative flirting. They're not smoking or drinking or breaking into cars. They're socializing in a neighborhood where there are not many venues from which to choose.

The Deseret News got a letter this week from a youth, age unknown, named Zach who makes a similar point: "I am speaking for most of the kids in the Salt Lake Valley," he wrote. "We need more skate parks and dirt jump parks in the valley. This would greatly affect many things including tourists, the popularity of many sports, necessary recreation for kids and a nice place to go and hang out."

There are about 16 skate parks total here, he says. "This may seem like a lot, but they are greatly spaced out." And he talks about the benefits of building more: "Kids would get more active if they have a fun place to ride bikes, scooters, skateboards and rollerblades around. And just think how many would go if it were close to their house. Skate parks help kids get active and get better at skills that they would not learn otherwise."

He longs for lights so he can ride his BMX in the park when darkness falls. It would be safer "so that riding at night was possible somewhere besides out on city streets … . I don't know what I would do without the parks that we have. They have given me a lot of happiness over the years."

What he would do, I think, is hang out at malls and little playgrounds and other places that periodically take steps to reduce their teenage population like it's varmint control.

Teens and tweens must be welcome in our neighborhoods as long as they're not causing problems, whether at skate parks or other venues. It's human nature for friends to find places to enjoy each others' company. They're not going to vaporize when they've finished their homework. They have to have safe, hospitable and affordable places to go for friendship and fun.

Otherwise, they're apt to find the mischief we suspect they're getting into for real.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by email at lois@desnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.

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