Playgrounds are closed. I know there are a multitude of larger worries during this pandemic—the health and safety of your family and friends, the fact that cops are STILL murdering black people in the streets. But alongside the grand tragedies playing out in front of everyone’s eyes, there are smaller dramas that are very real to the smallest, most vulnerable among us. If you don’t have kids, you may or may not have noticed this, but every playground I’ve encountered around here has had swings removed from frames, bold-lettered CLOSED signs posted, and ringed with yellow caution tape, like brightly colored crime scenes.

My son is seven and often throughout the day, our house cannot contain him. He will bolt outside before even realizing he’s not wearing any shoes on his stockinged feet, and once he’s got those Velcro’ed on, he’ll literally run around in circles, he’s got so much energy pent up.

He doesn’t have school time to spend with his peers and chase around the campus and wear him out, and he’s not really equipped at this age for Zoom happy hours to make up for meaningful time spent with friends, hell, he’s getting to the point now where he will turn off cartoons of his own volition, he’s watched so much TV.

Usually on days when we had nothing going on, we could at least escape to a playground for an hour — return a library book and hog the swings at the local rec center, climb to the top of the tower before plunging down one of the twin tube slides at one of our favorite parks, or just walk a few blocks to the elementary school near our house where we’d more than likely be the only ones there to clamber on their equipment before dinner.

Playgrounds are thinly disguised exercise and shin maiming equipment, sure, but they are imagination fuel. They are brightly packaged exhilarating pirate rocket trucks and monster chase emporiums and they are an escape.

And watching my kid regard the yellow tape locking all of that down and seeing his shoulders droop is the sort of small heartbreak I am going to carry for a long time. I’m sure he will too.

Understand, I am in no way demanding the gub’mint give us back our god-given right to see-saws, I understand why they are off-limits and I’m okay with staying off of them. But this small indignity is one that I can’t shield my kid from. It’s one of the places where the ripple effects of the pandemic enters his life directly. He may not have to deal with balancing working from home or feel the real dread involved with entering a grocery store, but passing a super rad-looking playground with monkey bars and spinny things and being told No — not by his parents but by cold, impersonal nylon tape — hits him right where he lives. It sucks.

It sucks and I’ve assured him again and again that I KNOW that it sucks, that I am right there with him and I’m sorry. But I’m not right there with him. I don’t need these places in the same way he does. I remember being a kid and the excitement of running between the slide and the merry-go-round until dusk, but my impulses and metabolism are tempered by age in a way his shouldn’t be right now. He should be free and he is not…and he can see that. And I know he feels that. And it kills me. He’s a little kid for chrissakes.

I appreciate that there are so many worse ways to experience this national calamity and I’m grateful that we are safe for now. But one refrain I’ve seen on social media for weeks now is people saying that they can’t imagine what it must be like to be raising kids during all of this. It’s many things for us, but for our kid, it is a roped off swing set that might kill you. It is a thief of joy, dressed in bright primary colors, inviting and repulsive and sad.

An Atlanta-based writer, musician, and podcast producer. mykejohns.com

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