One Man’s Way to Create Neighborhood Play for His Kids

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By Peter Gray Ph.D.

When I give talks to parents’ groups about the benefits of outdoor free play for their kids, the first question asked is often something like this:  My child doesn’t want to play outdoors because there’s nobody out there to play with.  What can I do about that? Invariably, as part of my answer, I recommend Mike Lanza’s book, Playborhood(link is external).

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Children are designed, by nature, to want to play with other children, in their own ways, away from adult interference. That’s how they practice taking control of their own lives, solving their own problems, and getting along with peers.  But in today’s world such play does not come easily.  As a society we have gone berserk with the idea that the world is too scary for children to run free and that children need constant supervision and direction.  So, even those children whose parents allow them to play freely outdoors have a problem.  There’s nobody to play with.

When Mike Lanza recalls his own childhood, in suburbs of Pittsburgh in the 1960s and ‘70s, his happiest memories are about adventures with other children, with no adults around.  That’s true for most of us who were kids more than three or four decades ago.  When Mike became a father, 11 years ago, he was determined to provide his son, Marco, with a childhood of play akin to that which he had enjoyed.  He and his wife Perla searched for a home in a neighborhood where children could be seen playing freely outdoors, but they could not find one, at least not in the part of the world where they wanted to live.  So, they moved into a neighborhood, in Menlo Park, California, with little traffic and quite a few children—a neighborhood with at least the potential for free play—and then Mike set about turning that neighborhood into a place for play, or, as he calls it, a “playborhood”.

 He did this in a number of ways. First, and most important, he turned their front yard into a sort of neighborhood pocket park for kids.  The yard isn’t big, but it’s crammed with play opportunities.  There’s a fountain and an elevated play river to splash in and float tiny boats down, a smooth concrete driveway for all kinds of hard-surface play, two basketball hoops set at different heights, a large whiteboard and markers for drawing, a picnic table, and benches that serve also as weatherproof toy boxes.  From the beginning, the Lanzas spent lots of time in the front yard, for example, eating picnic meals there, so others in the neighborhood would see them and get to know them.  They invited neighborhood kids to play there whenever they liked, even when no Lanzas were there.  In the backyard they put playthings that were too big for the front, including an in-ground trampoline and a two-story playhouse (see the photo), and neighborhood children were invited to play there, too, whenever they wished.

Because the children in this neighborhood had little previous experience creating their own play, Mike also started and led a small neighborhood summer day camp, held in his yard and on the quiet street in front of it.  The idea was to help the kids get started in play—teach them some games and introduce them to some crafts—and then let them go on their own.  Mike is not a hundred percent happy with the results; his neighborhood is still not a 1950s, or ‘60s, or ‘70s place where kids run free, chasing one another around blocks and playing in everyone’s yard as if the whole place were one big park.  There are still parents who don’t let their kids out without an adult. There are still kids who spend essentially all their time at schoolwork, solitary indoor activities, and being driven to adult-run activities outside of the neighborhood.  But, still, there’s much more play going on now than before, and much more than in most other suburban neighborhoods today.

Recently I was in the San Francisco Bay area to give a talk, and, as part of my trip, I visited the Lanzas for a day and stayed overnight with them.  Marco is now 11 years old.  He’s been riding his bike or scooter to school and back (1.5 miles each way) by himself or with friends since second grade.  He’s also been making all of his own play arrangements with friends, with no help from parents, for the past three years or so.  One of his current after-school routines is to scooter home and then, from there, scooter with one or more friends to the town skate park, more than a mile away, and play there for an hour or more before returning home.  Mike lent me a bicycle so I could follow Marco and his friend on this trip, which I did, from a distance, with the boys’ kind permission.  I saw how gracefully they performed scooter tricks in driveways and on steps as they made their way to the park; I watched as they stopped at a bicycle shop on the way, where Marco, on his own, got an inner tube that he needed for some project he was working on at home; and I also saw how careful the boys were when they crossed the busy multilane street they had to cross to get to the park.  At the park, Marco and his friend seemed to be the only kids their age or younger who were not attended by an adult. I felt a vicarious thrill as I watched them make their scooters dive and leap at the park.

Mike believes that Marco would not be the physically and socially competent boy he now is if it were not for his (Mike’s) efforts in creating the playborhood.  In a recent essay (here(link is external)) he presents evidence that social skills did not come easily or naturally to Marco.  It was only through regular, daily experience at play with others that he learned to be socially competent and confident.  Marco now has two younger brothers—Nico (age 8, the boy leaping from the playhouse roof to the trampoline in the photo) and Leo (age 6), who have had the playborhood advantage since birth.  Mike devoted a lot of effort to create free play in his neighborhood, and now he believes it was all very, very worthwhile.

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