Desegregating Play

By Jasen Frelot

This week, as we recall the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., segregation is at the top of my mind. During the era of formalized segregation in pre-Civil Rights Movement America segregation was maintained through “whites only” signs at pools, restaurants, and parks, as well as “Sundown” laws and Redlining in American towns and cities. While the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 has made explicit segregation illegal, de facto segregation remains.

Even though most White people would never say something like, “I don’t want my children to play with poor black kids,” the way their neighborhoods, schools, and extracurricular activities are set up achieve this same effect.

Take Seattle’s Magnuson Park. It’s a massive 20-acre former military base abutting one of the most affluent neighborhoods in one of the most affluent cities in America. Right in the middle of the park is a small housing project called Brettler Place. It’s a small outpost for low-income people in an affluent neighborhood, including many people of color. It was the former home of Charleena Lyles, who was shot there, in front of her children, by the Seattle Police last year.

The playground at Brettler Place housing complex in Magnuson Park (Photo credit: Tonkin Architecture)

The playground at Brettler Place housing complex in Magnuson Park (Photo credit: Tonkin Architecture)

If the world was as it should be the playgrounds at Magnuson Park would be a beautiful mixture of families from different racial and economic backgrounds playing and laughing together. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Magnuson Park is starkly segregated.

Only a block away from Brettler Place is a private indoor tennis club. Outside there are perfectly manicured soccer and football fields that, though technically open to all, are somehow always filled with rotation of lacrosse, soccer, and rugby reserved by affluent schools and sports leagues. This public park is full of multiple private clubs such as Little Kickers and the Mountaineers. It goes without saying that the families that are able to use these fields and private clubs are largely White and privileged.

This is the great tragedy of segregated play fields, pools and clubs: they isolate play.

Kids learn to be together through play. Around Brettler Place, you can see kids engaged in the magic of free play. It’s a messy, fun, wild process where they learn to establish boundaries, find common ground with playmates who are different from them, and to respect those differences. But when kids are only exposed to play with kids who are just like them, they learn to segregate themselves. These kids will grow up to be adults who feel uncomfortable around people of other races.

As parents and teachers, we can preach respect and empathy until the cows come home, but our children will learn by our actions.

Most families that come to Magnuson Park don’t even know that Brettler Place and those fun-loving kids exist. They don’t know what they’re missing.

I want to be clear, there is nothing wrong with organized play. Organized play can teach children technical skills, such as how to kick a soccer ball or how to play a musical instrument. Children can develop confidence as they overcome a challenging project.

The problem comes when organized play is segregated by walls, fences, and fees. The kids playing in the private clubs and in the sanctioned lacrosse and soccer leagues need more of the unsupervised play that happens at Brettler Place, the kids at Brettler and their parents would surely love to be apart of some sanctioned sports leagues if those leagues would be willing to adjust to the needs and values of those families. The reality is that we need each other.

Both sets of children, so close to each other in proximity, but worlds apart in lived experience, need each other to become the full loving human beings that they are capable of becoming.

Will Magnuson Park ever integrate? I don’t know. I hope so, but it will only happen if those with power (upper middle class White people) make it happen. White people created these systems of segregation, and it’s up to White people to dismantle them, brick by brick. If they can do that (if you can do that) then maybe one day we’ll get to see Dr. King’s dream of Black children, White children, Latinx, Asian American children, Native children--ALL CHILDREN playing together. Finally.