Eight years ago, Mike Lanza, author of the book and blog “Playborhood,” was about to have his first child. Taking a very thoughtful approach to becoming a father for the first time, he says he “started paying attention to what the lives of kids were like.”
“At that time,” says Lanza, “I was a young adult in San Francisco. That life was very insular. I hadn’t really thought about childhood since my childhood, so I started turning to some friends with kids and I was honestly appalled. My reference point was my own childhood, and my best experiences were being a kid in the neighborhood without adults around.”
He didn’t see children experiencing this kind of childhood anymore. Instead, he saw kids taking lessons, playing in structured and supervised environments, and being monitored every second of every day.
“I said to myself and my wife, We’re not doing this.’ I’m an entrepreneur, and it may be strange to look at a cultural phenomenon and reject it, but it wasn’t strange for me.”
But what would he do differently? How would he provide that kind of freedom he remembers for his own kids in this day and age? “My first thought,” Lanza says, “was that we’d just move into a great neighborhood.”
In looking around for homes in various neighborhoods, however, what he and his wife found was that neighborhoods where kids were actually outside playing with any level of autonomy were extremely rare. So they decided to move into a neighborhood that they considered to have all the right “ingredients” and set about to transform it into the place they envisioned.
“I felt a sense of urgency about transforming our neighborhood because when we finally found our home and moved in, my son was already four. What we did, in a nutshell, was make a conscious effort to be outside the house in the front every day, and to make our yard into a neighborhood hangout.”
Lanza built a beautiful picnic table for dinners in the front yard. He says most people tuck themselves away in the backyard when they barbecue, behind fences, isolated from their neighbors. He and his wife rejected that idea and began eating in the front yard, inviting friends and neighbors to join. They built play structures, a sandbox, and a play fountain. At every opportunity, the Lanzas invited people to come use these structures, whether the family was home or not. In a sense, they opened their yard to the world in order to create a sense of freedom and an expanded view of community in their own children.
Now the Lanzas have three children, and their “playborhood” has become fully realized thanks to other families in the ‘hood who have embraced the idea. The sidewalks, yards, and streets surrounding their home are full of life: children are at play.
“My oldest rides his bike to and from school. It’s a mile and a half. Most mornings I try to ride with him. I say try’ because I don’t have to, but I like to, just to spend time with him.”