I hated leaving them. There they lay, discarded, dismantled on the floor of the garage. Once so highly regarded, they had come to this unceremonious end.
It seemed like only yesterday that they had gotten so much attention. Bolted high near the ceiling, they dared anyone walking by to give it a go, to hang, swing, climb.
But, with our former Iseman home in Northeast Pennsylvania now for sale, I could not figure out a way to salvage our homemade monkey bars.
The kids, now adults, lived too far away and knew of no one still in Wilkes-Barre who wanted them. I thought of donating them but they were heavy — 16 feet long, 2 by 6 boards as the sides, punctuated by 2 foot lengths of 1-inch galvanized pipe rungs. I also had no great expectation they would be accepted at a modern-day playground.
“Too dangerous … no one uses homemade playground equipment anymore … man, we could get sued if we let kids play on those … you sure they won’t break?”
Across the country, many traditional playgrounds have become sissified. We’ve babied the equipment down to the point that kids find more excitement in a single round of Candy Crush Soda Saga.
Quick. Right now. If you have kids or grandkids you care about, google the word
“brachiation.” Then, google Glenn Doman and his institute in Philadelphia that has had great success helping brain-injured kids and also is sought after to advise more fortunate parents with children who are well. He teaches how to help kids learn and grow.
Then, for inspiration, click on this video.
It’s my kids when they were young, playing on several kinds of homemade equipment hung from our basement ceiling. The monkey bars went up first, then I added an old metal swing … then a bar to move across the ceiling … then a couple old mattresses to cushion the falls … then an old Formica countertop became a slide …
On their own, the kids developed a game with somewhat sophisticated rules called “Can’t Touch the Ground” that had them brachiating across the room for hours like orangutans set free in the fruit aisle of a Whole Foods.
The monkey bars became so ingrained in our lives that:
We would plan little basement circus demonstrations when friends visited; I developed several fairly sophisticated competitive contests for the kids that involved me sitting on a couch (yes, sometimes with a 40-ounce Miller High Life by my side) throwing Nerfy things at their feet while they dodged and traversed the bars at the same time; we moved the monkey bars with us to three different houses; every one of us has been “inked” with a monkey bars logo that we came up with in Las Vegas once we decided the Isemans needed a “family tattoo.”
I guess it’s the closest thing we have to a family crest. And I’m as proud of it as Donald Trump would be if he could persuade all his wives to ink “Make America Great Again” somewhere that hasn’t had plastic surgery.
The kids fell into a daily monkey bar routine. Actually, it was more like three times a day when it was cold or rainy outside. This not only kept them exercised and sleeping well, it helped keep my wife and I sane. More importantly, we believe it helped the kids get smarter.
Doman, an expert on child development, believes brachiation gets the lungs working, the blood moving and the brain developing. I’ve found no expert disagreeing with him and lots of info from playground experts saying he’s right.
“Brachiation ladders have been built and used for treatment of children with cerebral palsy, autism, and brain injuries as suggested by the teachings of Glenn Doman who has studied child brain development,” says an advocacy line from the website Playground Professionals.
Doman, according to the site, “also suggests their use with children as young as 2 to expand their physical development, which stimulates brain development and their learning capabilities.”
A 2007 study called “Overhead Equipment Use: The Developmental Benefits and Use Patterns of Overhead Equipment on Playgrounds” videotaped and studied more than a thousand instances of “overhead appartus use” by kids of various ages. The study also looked deeper into concerns about elbow injury and concluded:
“The growing volume of research on benefits of brachiation demonstrates its value for overall health, fitness, and physical development. Specific skills developed include endurance, strength, flexibility, general coordination, eye-hand coordination, visual perception of distance, balanced locomotor patterns, confidence, and ability to use increasingly challenging equipment.”
One of the cooler things these researchers did in the study was to document how older, stronger kids came to vary their games and routines, progressing in complexity, which kept the overhead equipment interesting.
“Many children who frequently used the equipment during chase games and competitive swinging events developed extraordinary skills of movement, coordination, and grace. The linkage of overhead apparatus, allowing organized games of chase and tag to flow from device to device contributed to both function and frequency of use.”
I marveled at this years ago from my perch in our basement (and, no, it wasn’t only after several of those humongous Miller beers), so this following paragraph in the study really hit home with me:
“In general, children progressed through fundamental beginning stages to practice stages, refining stages, and finally to mastery stages, each marked by ever more complex patterns of movement, greater refinement in skills, and apparent improved strength, flexibility, coordination, and confidence.”
More than three decades ago, one of my older sisters, pregnant and anxious to give her baby a good start in life when she lived in New York City, went to one of Doman’s training classes for parents in nearby Philadelphia.
At the time, I did maintenance and whatever odd jobs I could find in NYC. The next thing I knew, I was being paid to build a wooden ladder for a baby, courtesy of my sister. The brachiator had to be able to hang horizontally as you would expect from monkey bars but also to drop, vertically, and be anchored at about 2 feet of the floor, within reach of a baby or toddler.
As the kid grew, the equipment was designed to be raised in stages. I think the max height put it only about 6 feet off the ground.
Seemed kinda bizarre, the thought of parents on the floor watching the kiddo grasp the rungs with delight while the baby half-toddled and half-swung from rung to rung. I felt a little like a scam artist. But, hey, my sister was very convincing, enough so that I quickly built a second brachiator for my soon-to-be born nephew.
At the time, I didn’t think much about Doman’s ideas — though my sister embraced them heartily, at one point using flash cards to try to teach math to her child before he could crawl — but I started thinking anew about the man’s theories and prestige years later, about the time my wife and I began to marvel at how well our kids were doing in school.
Lotsa perfect report cards, I can publicly brag now. Back then, I would not have boasted about this, mostly because I feared the A’s would stop coming. But that didn’t happen. Not through all of high school. Certainly in college they faced some speed bumps, but none of the five ran into complexities they could not handle.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying they ended up geniuses or prodigies, but they did well. At these universities for bachelor degrees no less: Columbia, Penn, Syracuse, NYU and Fordham. You might note that two of those are Ivy League schools.
Three of the kids obtained more than bachelor’s degrees. Two have doctorates and one has a master’s. And they all started at a public high school.
OK. OK. I know. Enough parental preening.
What do the kids say? I asked them if they thought monkey bars helped them become more intelligent.
From Carla, now an optometrist in California: “Physical activity while the brain is developing is definitely beneficial to the learning process (i.e. made us smarter.)” She said “lots of reading” was a big factor, as was the absence of “excessive video games.”
From Adam, now an electrical engineer in Seattle: “Having the best parents ever made us smarter. … Reading a bunch, physical exercise and a safe place to play definitely helped.”
Luke, an enterpreneur, inventor and adviser to start-ups in California: “Physical activity yes, monkey bars specifically no idea.”
Mia, a former high school teacher who now teaches social media strategies for a burgeoning company based in Austin, Texas: “The monkey bars helped with goal-setting for me, like going across (was) actually doing them, instead of just playing on them.”
And, from Scott, a chiropractor in NYC, who decided to offer nice comments about his parents and not really address the question, specifically:
“Our parents made us smart. Not steel bars and wood. … I think proper parenting and guidance helped form our bright minds.”
Which brings up a great point. Am I saying these monkey bars were the linchpin of learning?
Would our kids have done as well in school without mom toting them to libraries all the time? Without mom reading to them? Without mom staying home to take care of them during their most formative years? Without mom and I strictly monitoring TV time?
Without some great teachers and well-run gifted programs? Without supportive aunts and uncles and grandparents?
Without each other to lean on? Without friends?
With the distractions of cable TV or addictive video games? (Whew! Luckily, we could not afford them.)
No, to all the above.
But, I am still encouraging you to do that googling I suggested earlier. And, consider this. The ladder in the ceiling created memories, good ones, for our kids.
From Adam, the “baby,” who before age 4 was able to traverse back and forth along that 16 feet of ladder almost three dozen times without touching his feet:
“The best thing I recall about the monkey bars was shattering the record for most times going back and forth on them (92?) and then promptly getting kicked off of them before I could attempt a second try,” Adam recalls.
“Everyone else had to try and fail to beat it.”
From Mia, who once was asked by a teacher about holding her pencil in an unusual way due to hands roughened by brachiating:
“The best thing I recall is doing it 30 times back and forth without stopping. I felt so accomplished and strong because of the monkey bars! It was also something that adults could not do, so as a kid that was awesome.”
“The worst thing I recall was calluses on your hands that I got from the metal bars rubbing against them over and over. They hurt only a little bit. … They weren’t embarrassing except for that time when my teachers looked at them in computer class quizzically, as if you were making us do some sort of weird labor.”
Luke as the oldest had a special challenge of interacting physically with younger siblings who were not as strong as him. Keeping games fair and interesting across such an age range was not easy. The kids sometimes resorted to an arbitration-type of interaction we used to call “Little Lawyers.”
Luke recalls: “Like a limited Lord of the Flies, we had to learn to resolve disputes among ourselves. Escalation was momma screaming or maybe even limiting our supply of pepperoni rolls. Although, really bad disputes were sort of fun: We had a chance to play ‘Little Lawyers.’
Asked about the worst thing he recalled, he said: “Sitting in a cubicle has never really been a legitimate option after growing up with these. In fact, I’m surprised we put up with as much useless sitting in classrooms as we did.”
And, from Scott:
“Best thing was obviously epic games of Can’t Touch the Ground Freeze Tag. There wasn’t anything bad about them. Except relocating them between the different houses. Finding room for them on the different U-Hauls etc.”
Like I said earlier, these things were difficult to move.
So, they sit still in Wilkes-Barre. Email me or comment on this missive if you want to try rescue them.
If not, I’ll get over it. There’s actually no great loss. I am confident my kids could design and build a better set pretty easily.
Did I tell you Adam’s an engineer? Did I note that Luke welds and has turned shipping containers into homes? Did I explain that none of the kids shy away from physical labor?
Did I mention that I think they’re all pretty damn smart?