About 27 years ago, on my fourth birthday, my parents took me to McDonald’s for a birthday party with my friends from the neighborhood. It’s one of the few birthdays I had as a child that I still have crystal clear memories of. This particular restaurant, in a small town on Long Island, New York, was split into two sections and partitioned by panes of glass with strategically placed doors to allow for convenient passage while still allowing parents to keep a close eye on their rowdy children. On one side, customers would order their food and could sit and enjoy their meal in the same manner which we’re used to today. On the other side, there was a massive indoor playground taking up two-thirds of the area. Booths and tables hugged the glass wall and a second exit led outside to a fenced in outdoor playscape for warm and sunny days.
Ronald McDonald made an appearance at my party, as he did for just about every birthday party at that location. We had a woman, decked out in McDonald’s gear, who painted our faces with glittery paints. My friends and I went down slides, climbed on every surface possible, spun each other around on the mini merry-go-round, and let our imaginations run wild. Our food was brought to our tables by employees who also supplied us with an official McDonald’s cake. I opened my presents, thanked my friends, and we quickly got sugared up and back to playing. That birthday party is one of my favorite childhood memories.
When I was a child, I loved going out to various fast food restaurants, McDonalds or otherwise. The food was never the focus though; the goal that my little brother and I always had in mind was finding the best playground and spending as much time as possible playing on it. Food was simply the last obstacle we had to work through in order to get to that playground. I can’t count the amount of belly aches I gave myself by cramming food down my throat in a rush to jump into the ball pit, slide down the fireman pole, or climb up the miniature rock wall. We didn’t love fast food joints for the food, we loved them for the play.
My son is not quite as lucky as I was when it comes to fast food restaurants and their appeal. I can count on one hand the amount of fast food establishments we have been in together where he’s been able to hit the playground after our meal. The majority of restaurants either have no playscape to speak of or have one that is so poorly maintained that I cannot allow him to play on it without fear of him hurting himself or getting sick from the various bodily fluids left behind by gross little kids. The latter is rarely a problem though, as I can’t remember the last time we’ve been in a place that has had any type of play area, indoor or outdoor. The closest we’ve gotten in the past year is our local Burger King putting in brightly colored children’s chairs in order to create a sort of lounge area around a television set on the wall.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when the decline happened, but I went from seeing brightly colored playscapes all over the place and seeing restaurants compete to have the best one to seeing playgrounds torn down and replaced with additional seating or possibly an outdoor picnic areas. Instead of slides, fast food is giving us flat screen televisions on every wall so we have something interesting to look at. No one wants our children to come in, have a meal, and play for a while. They want our children to outgrow kid-sized meals as quickly as possible so they spend more money. They want our children to get extras off the value menu to supplement their meal, possibly also adding a milkshake or other dessert. They want us to sit, stuff our faces, and leave as quickly as possible. Or, in an extra effort to keep their contact with us to a minimum, they will add an extra drive-thru lane in order to encourage us to go that route and not even set foot inside the doors.
Fast food isn’t exactly healthy. Their establishments aren’t known for being warm and comfortable. We don’t enter a fast food restaurant thinking of having a relaxing night out or bonding with our family. It’s known for being quick and easy, and there is nothing wrong with that whatsoever. But what was wrong with having more? What is the harm in having a special area for children to be children? With having families anxious to get inside to grab one of the coveted tables near the playscape so they can relax as their kids cut loose? Were establishments hurting that bad for space that it didn’t make sense to waste it on a slide or two? Did maintenance on a plastic playground eat away that much of their profits? Why is it now so rare for me to see these playgrounds?
I find it incredibly sad that the general public would rather have 12 inch flatscreen televisions mounted to the walls as they eat their burger and fries than have a fun area where their children can burn off some of the calories gained from the chicken nuggets and honey mustard dipping sauce. We’ve taken a lazy activity — ordering and eating fast food — and made it even lazier by subtracting the one thing that would allow our children to get a bit of exercise, and possibly us too if our children are rowdy enough. We made a two-part experience into a boring trip that is about nothing but the unhealthy food. I’m grateful that my childhood was filled with playgrounds, but it breaks my heart a bit to know that this particular area of our world is nowhere near the same for my own child.