When he was driving around Menlo Park, California, a few years ago, househunting, Mike Lanza had to ask himself: "Where are all the kids?" He'd spent consecutive weekends roaming through neighborhoods looking for places he might want to move his family and was a bit disturbed to pass through block after block to find almost no children playing outside. A father of three, Lanza had put a high priority on choosing not just a house but a neighborhood where his kids could and would want to play outside regularly without supervision. He never found it.
"Finding a place where kids are playing, where kids have a great life outside the home, is virtually impossible," Lanza says. "We spent two-and-a-half years looking for a place to live."
Eventually he did find a house, but the neighborhood didn't really live up to his standards. So Lanza decided it was up to him to make his neighborhood a place where his kids and the kids of his neighbors would want to go outside and play. With his website and a new book, Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood into a Place for Play, Lanza's hoping others will follow him.
"It's really bleak for children out there. For all the sugar-coating we put on how great we think childhood is in America, we haven’t admitted that we're providing children with a very low quality childhood," says Lanza. "I don't think there's any question, at least in my mind, that children suffer more than anybody from a lack of community."
To help create that community, Lanza decided to use his own front and back yards. Over the last few years, he and his family have converted their outdoor space into a community playground. The front yard has a picnic table and bench seating, a fountain, a large whiteboard for drawing, a sandbox and a big mural of the neighborhood painted on the driveway. The backyard is a little more elaborate, with a playhouse, swing set and even an in-ground trampoline. Both the front and back yards are open to the neighborhood kids for play.
In his book, Lanza argues that other people can and should make similar efforts to increase play opportunities for kids. In addition to his own work, he also highlights community-led efforts to create more play opportunities that don't require a team, a coach or a car trip to the park. Kids should be able to play in their neighborhoods, says Lanza, echoing our own Sarah Goodyear's recent thoughts on the subject.
The reason behind all this effort, Lanza says, it that he wants his kids to be able to find the same joy and wonderment in their neighborhood that he found in his as a child.
There's a certain "back in my day" quality to Lanza's evangelism, but it's not just nostalgia. More kids were playing outside in decades past, Lanza argues, because they had fewer options.
"There wasn’t a lot competing for our attention," he says. "Our neighborhood was by far the most interesting thing we had."
But today, a wide variety of indoor attractions – from video games to the internet to television – are often more alluring to kids than wandering outside into a neighborhood that may be bland or boring or just plain unsafe. Lanza says we need to try harder to make the idea and reality of going outside more exciting.
"The window of opportunity for the neighborhood to actually be their choice is very small. When they go outside, if they're looking for something to do, there'd better be something interesting within a minute or two. They're not going to walk five minutes to the park," he says.
And while parks can provide great places for kids to play, Lanza argues that communities shouldn't just compartmentalize their children's playing activities to one part of town.
"Among planners and a lot of play activists, they're thinking this is a problem for government to solve. I think that’s just ridiculous," Lanza says. He wants parents and neighbors to take a more proactive approach to encouraging outdoor play. Maybe not everyone will put as much effort into it as he has, but Lanza says that if people are willing to put up even a little more effort, they can make their neighborhoods into places where kids will actually want to turn off their screens and go outside.
Image courtesy Mike Lanza