Hawthorn, we have a problem. Boroondara Council needs a rocket.

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I’m showing my age but when I was young, every kid wanted to be an astronaut.

If you have ever read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff or seen the magnificent movie adaptation you’ll know why. Stoical, inspirational astronauts were perfectly happy to risk their lives, sitting on top of what was basically a giant firework, blasting off into space and eventually setting foot on the moon.

Magnet for kids: Henry and Eloise Gannon play on the rocket tower in Central Gardens, Hawthorn.Credit:Joe Armao

In response, down here on earth, local councils all over Australia constructed rocket ships in playgrounds. Like millions of kids, I willingly accepted the challenge of climbing up the series of ladders to the top, admiring the view and then slipping down the slide.

Over the years, one by one, they have rusted away and been demolished. There are a few still in Sydney (although often closed off and sitting as forlorn lifeless sculptures) and one stands proudly in Benalla, appropriately enough in Ned Kelly country. So, piece by piece the beguiling, colourful mosaic of our youth is replaced by something bland, uniform and grey.

Now Boroondara Council may remove the iconic rocket in Central Gardens in Hawthorn. Residents are fired up about the plans with one, quite rightly, likening its significance to the neon-lit Skipping Girl sign in Abbotsford.

I suppose we are all sadly used to this now. Officious bureaucrats and lawyers somehow find a way to simultaneously wag their fingers while thumbing their way through voluminous Occupational Health and Safety laws. They then earnestly pronounce that these dangerous structures have no place in a modern playground; preferring instead ones where no child is ever allowed to graze their knee and all fun must be had in a strictly and carefully regulated manner.

At a time children are spending so much time on tablets, we should be encouraging the preservation of playgrounds.

Surely, the more we live in a world where so much children’s play takes place on tablets and computers, the more we should value and preserve our playgrounds. The whole concept of a public playground is a very modern one. At the turn of the 20th century, they allowed kids, many who were living in urban slums, a place not just to exercise but also to be free and to lark about. To be children.

That reflected a change about how we look at childhood itself dating back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the mid 1700s. He proposed the revolutionary idea, that we now take for granted, that children have a direct, sensuous, creative and innocent relationship with the world. Adults may get corrupted by experience but the least we can do is respect and nurture the natural goodness of children.

So, all power to the residents of Hawthorn as they fight to preserve not just their small corner of history but also the beauty and innocence of childhood. And it reminds us that history doesn’t just take place in grand but sterile public buildings. Real history, personal, private history happens where you least expect it, sometimes in local playgrounds.

Duncan Fine is a lawyer and regular columnist

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