Listen as you drive through most neighborhoods in America these days and you might notice something missing: the shrieks and laughter of kids playing outside.
When my guest today had kids, he decided he wasn’t going to let them grow up in another quiet, morgue-like neighborhood. Instead, he was going to figure out why kids weren’t playing outside anymore, and how to fix the problem. His name is Mike Lanza, and in his book Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play, he shares how he did just that. At the start of our conversation, Mike explains how he became an advocate for kids playing outside by themselves with minimal adult supervision. He shares his theories on why outdoor play has decreased, and why simply limiting screen time and participation in organized extracurriculars doesn’t solve the problem. Mike then explains why you need a critical mass of kids to be playing outside before outdoor play becomes a norm, and what parents can do to create this critical mass by changing the environment in their yard and the social dynamics in their neighborhood.
- The lengthy search Mike embarked on to find a playful neighborhood
- What are the downsides of kids not playing as much as they used to?
- Why don’t we hear shrieks of laughter in our parks and neighborhoods anymore?
- How neighborhoods have changed in the last handful of decades
- What the network effect can tell us about this change
- What’s the critical mass that turns a neighborhood into a playborhood?
- How to actually get kids in the neighborhood outside playing
- Organizing your yard/real estate for maximum playfulness
- Why you should embrace chaos
- Making a playborhood with limited resources
- Creating a summer camp in your neighborhood
- What about child abductions? Is that a real worry?
- How do you get buy-in from neighbors without kids?
- What can parents do today to get a playborhood going?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- How to Raise Free Range Kids
- AoM series on overprotective parenting
- Why You Should Let Your Kids Get Dirty
- The Importance of Roughhousing With Your Kids
- How to Get Your Kids to Love Nature
- The “Third” Place
- The Importance of Play (Especially for Adults)
- Fun With a Pocket Knife: How to Play Mumbley Peg
- The Vanishing Neighbor
- How to Be a Good Neighbor
Connect With Mike
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Listen as you drive through most neighborhoods in America these days, and you might notice something missing: the shrieks and laughter of kids playing outside. When my guest today had kids, he decided he wasn’t going to let them grow up in another quiet, morgue-like neighborhood. Instead, he was going to figure out why kids weren’t playing outside anymore and how to fix the problem. His name is Mike Lanza and in his book Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play, he shares how he did just that.
At the start of our conversation, Mike explains how he became an advocate for kids playing outside by themselves with minimal adult supervision. He shares his theories on why outdoor play has decreased and why simply limiting screen time an participation in organized extracurriculars doesn’t solve the problem. Mike then explains why you need a critical mass of kids to be playing outside before outdoor play becomes the norm, and what parents can do to create this critical mass by changing the environment in their yard and the social dynamics in their neighborhood. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/playborhood.
Mike Lanza, welcome to the show.
Mike Lanza: Yeah, thank you.
Brett McKay: You are the author of the book Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play. Tell us about this idea of playborhood that you came up with. What’s your story? How did this all come about?
Mike Lanza: Well, I was living in San Francisco with my wife back in the early-2000s, and we had just been single adults having a great time in San Francisco. When my wife became pregnant with our first child, who turned out to be a son, all of a sudden I realized, “Boy, I really don’t know what childhood is like these days. I haven’t really hung out with people who have kids very much. I’ve just been living in my own single world, urban single world.”
But I was an older father to be. I was 40 years old, so I had lots of friends who had kids, and I started paying attention and asking questions. I remember one day, I was at a friend’s house, and it really hit me, “Wow.” His son was arguing. My friend’s son was arguing with him about scheduling and being with this kid or being with that kid, where they were going. And it sounded awful to me. I turned to my friend and I said, “Why doesn’t he just go out and play?” And my friend said, “Oh, kids don’t do that anymore.”
I thought, “Wow.” When I really processed it, I thought to myself, “The best things in my life, the best memories from my childhood, are just not possible for this kid. And apparently, according to my friend, are not possible for most kids these days, maybe all kids these days, and I just can’t accept that. I’m not going to raise my kid that way.” My first reaction was, “Well, I’m just going to buy a house in a great neighborhood that has lots of kids playing, and that’ll solve the problem.” I thought it was a problem that I could just solve with money and moving.
And I searched and searched, ended up searching for over two years for a house. I never found a house in a great neighborhood that was available and with lots of kids playing. I just realized how difficult that was. It was almost impossible. But what I did find was a house that had the bones, had the infrastructure. It was very walkable, a lot of good destinations close by, calm street, lots of kids living in the area, not playing outside, but living in the area, our kids’ age. At the time, I had a four year old and a one year old, and we had thought maybe we’d have another kid. And I thought, “Well, that’s the best I’m going to do. I’ll move to this place, and it has a lot of things that we can make into a great place for kids to play.” And that’s really when I started Playborhood.
Brett McKay: That point you made about some of your greatest memories as a kid took part … When you took part in unsupervised play with just your buddies, right? You were just by yourself with other kids. When you said that, I started thinking back to my memories as a child, and yeah, most of them happened when I was playing in a creek by myself with my friends, when there’s no adults around.
Mike Lanza: Yeah. I don’t want my parents to feel bad. They’re passed away, may they rest in peace, but yeah, most of my best memories from my childhood don’t have any adults around, and I think there’s a good reason for that. I think that we get an awful lot out of our parents that we treasure the rest of our lives, but they set us up for great experiences when they’re not around, and that’s when we really learn the most. That’s when we grow the most, and those are the most memorable experiences. And boy, it’s sad. Childhood is just not very good for most kids these days.
Brett McKay: Well, talk about that. What’s the problem with kids not playing? Well, people just say, “Well, the way kids are doing things now is just different. It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.” But you make the case that, “No. Actually, when kids aren’t playing, there’s some downsides to that.” What are those?
Mike Lanza: Well, there are things that … The easy answers to that question are the measurable things, and so one of the things that a lot of people talk about is childhood obesity. Big problem. I don’t know the exact statistics, but some very large proportion of kids is obese, just so heavy, so overweight that they can’t even really exercise well. In some states in the United States like Mississippi, I remember hearing, it’s over 30% of kids are obese. Less so in other states, but still higher everywhere than it was decades ago.
And that’s measurable things. Things that are a little less measurable are their emotional state. There are some studies that are trying to compare kids today versus kids decades ago. There’s one study where they give kids the same test, and they’ve been doing it since 1937 or ’38, I think. And from that one study, giving the same test all these years, five times as many kids have emotional problems than had emotional problems back in the ’30s and ’40s. Five times. We also have an increase in child and teenage suicide, a big, big problem.
And then there are things that are really not measurable at all, but I think are very, very important. The ability of kids to make rules, to adjudicate disputes when they have an argument with somebody, to bend to accommodate a kid who isn’t as able, who maybe needs some special health. All these things, I group them into what you might call, for a kid, play skills. But as adults, we want adults to be able to solve problems, to create rules where there aren’t good rules, to create a society that works for everybody, and these are the sorts of things we did, what I did with my friends when we played our own games of pick-up. Pick-up baseball, pick-up basketball, pick-up two-hand tap football.
We were doing that every day. We were deciding where to play. We were making rules, because they were always a little bit different. We had arguments, we solved the arguments. We needed lots of kids to play, so we let kids play who weren’t as able as us, and we bent the rules for them. There was one kid in our neighborhood who was mentally disabled, and we wanted him to play softball with us. There was no way he could strike out. He got as many strikes as he wanted, and we wouldn’t try to get him out really fast. We would let him get to first base. These are the kinds of things we want our adults to do, and I think we could argue adults are not so good at doing these days compared to a few decades ago.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and you mentioned all those things, those skills, rule-making, adjudicating disputes, making accommodations for kids with special needs. Nowadays, adults do that for the kids. Adults make the decisions, and it’s no longer kid-led.
Mike Lanza: No, it’s no longer kid-led, and so kids think that their job is to show up and to do what they’re told. Not only is that, they’re not learning a lot, but try this, people who are listening. Go to a field, and maybe you have kids who are into sports. Go to a field and listen for how many cries of laughter, shrieks of laughter and joy that you hear. It doesn’t happen very often. It’s pretty quiet. It’s pretty serious, and I would argue, it’s just not that much fun. But if you have a group of kids who are playing on their own, you hear a lot more of that sort of thing. Kids are not growing and they’re just not having as much fun as they used to.
Brett McKay: But again, yeah, they’re not having fun, but when they’re having fun with play, as you said, they’re learning some really important life skills.
Mike Lanza: It’s a win/win, yeah.
Brett McKay: Right. It’s fun and it’s also serious stuff. You’re learning serious stuff. But let’s talk about why. Why don’t you hear those shrieks of laughter anymore when you drive through neighborhoods? What’s happened since … Even when I was a kid, which was 30 years ago, what’s changed since then?
Mike Lanza: Well, there are two ways to answer this question, and the most common way people answer the question is as a social scientist. “Well, let’s diagnose the problem.” And a lot of people have answers, and they’re essentially correct answers. We have lots of … TV now has 500 channels. We have the internet. We have mobile phones, iPads. We have a lot more activities than we used to. That’s the standard way to answer the question. And from a social science point of view, that makes a lot of sense. The problem with answering the question that way is that that leads you to come up with solutions that address those causes, and the solutions, if you frame the problem as, “Too much of this, too much of that, too much of that,” your solution is, “Let’s take them away.”
You hear a lot of parents saying, “We’re going to cut out screen time, only one hour a day. We’re not going to sign up kids for that many activities, and we’re just going to push them out the door.” And it doesn’t work. We found out back in the late-’80s, for those of us who were old enough, that Soviet-style withholding things from people doesn’t give people a reason to change their behavior. It’s just miserable, and that’s what happens. You push kids outside without anything to do, and they look out in the neighborhood and there’s nothing going on.
I like to frame the problem … I do agree. They have too much screen time and too many activities, and that they need to be doing other things, but I’d rather frame the problem in terms of, “What are neighborhoods like today,” versus, “What were neighborhoods like decades ago?” If you push a kid outside, they look around. Neighborhoods are boring, aren’t they? Why would someone want to go out and play in the neighborhood today when there’s nothing going on. It’s an awful choice, so neighborhoods have lost, or let’s say they’re losing, any competition for kids’ attention.
If a kid has an extra hour in an afternoon, he or she is going to think, “Well, I could turn on my television. It’s going to have something. I could turn on my iPad. I can play this game. It’s going to work. It’s going to be there. What happens if I go outside?” There’s a very, very low probability that anything’s going on, and so they choose the video game or they choose the television. A lot of what the emphasis of Playborhood is about encouraging parents, giving parents ideas, way to make their neighborhood into an interesting place that actually is a competitor with television, with video games, with the other activities, so the neighborhood is attractive to kids. That’s the way I’d like to frame the problem.
Brett McKay: And this way you frame the problem speaks to the network effect that you talk about in the book, about kids deciding whether to play or don’t play outside. If there aren’t any kids out there playing, no one’s going to play. But if there are kids out there playing, then more kids are more likely to play.
Mike Lanza: Yeah, that sounds almost too simple, but it’s actually an important concept. The network effect is something that we see in a lot of … I studied economics, though I like to think this way. It comes very naturally to me, but if you think about, for instance, the different kinds of cell phone operating systems, there’s really two. There’s Android and there’s iOS. Why are there only two? There used to be Windows Phone. There used to be Blackberry. There used to be actually a lot of others.
Some other companies have tried to promote their own new smartphone operating systems, but there’s only two. Why is that? Because there’s this network effect that, if someone else uses iOS, that actually benefits me, because I use iOS. Because that means there will be more apps built for iOS. There will be more Apple Stores around, where they can repair and they can solve my problems, and so I benefit from someone else’s use of iOS devices.
The network effect works in neighborhoods like this. You would think that the decision the family makes about … Let’s say it’s summer now, so what are kids doing in the summer? You would think that that is a private decision that is just something that is no one else’s business, but actually, if my neighbors send all their kids to camp every day, that affects my kids’ experience. That means that my kids really can’t have a good time in the neighborhood during the day in the summer, during weekdays in the summer, because all the neighbor kids are out.
Whether we like it or not, neighbors decisions about what their kids do, and the kids’ decisions themselves, actually have an affect on my kids. There’s this network effect, and what you find in a network effect situation is that there’s two, generally two possible equilibria. One is nothing, and the other is all. All or nothing, and so that’s what happens with neighborhood play. You either have … If a kid wants to go out and is thinking about, “Hey, maybe I’ll go outside and check it out and see if anybody’s out there,” if there’s a low probability, but not zero, if there’s a 10% chance or 5% chance that someone’s out there, why bother?
They look around. There’s a 90% or 95% chance there’s nothing going on. Most likely, there’s nothing going on. But if they turn on their computer, if they turn on their iPad, there’s 100% chance that they’re going to have something to do. A 10% or 5% or even 20% chance tends to crash down to zero, because no one wants to try if it’s so low. On the other hand, if it’s hopping, if something’s happening all the time, then that’s attractive. People want to be there if there’s something going on all the time.
There’s this natural tendency to have all or nothing, and that’s very important, because parents think, “Oh, if I put the little tyke’s slide in my front yard, I’ve done a good thing, because I’ve given my kid something to do outside.” But the truth is that making, because in this day and age, kids don’t play outside very much, hardly at all in most neighborhoods, that making your neighborhood into a place where kids want to play, and then that’s their choice to play, is actually really hard. You have to create critical mass so that kids have a hangout and they’re showing up on a very regular basis.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and so back, say, when you were a kid or I was a kid, there were those hangouts, right?
Mike Lanza: Yeah.
Brett McKay: There might’ve been some kids house, that was the hangout. You’d all just show up there, and then you’d decide what you were going to do that day. Or you’d show up at a local park, or you’d show up at the creek. But yeah, a lot of neighborhoods don’t have that anymore.
Mike Lanza: Yeah, and there’s a term for it. I’ll get a little academic on you again, but there’s this term in sociology called a third place. The idea of a third place, put forth by a sociologist named Ray Oldenburg, is that human beings have, in history, have had, in general, three different places in their life that were the foundation of their social life. Their first place is their home, where their family is. Their second place is their workplace or school, where they show up every day and they have a social group there. But then there’s this third place, and the third place isn’t so formal.
It’s a place that you show up when you want, and when you show up, there’s almost always someone there who you want to see. And you enjoy your time with them, and you leave when you want to leave. For adults, the prototypical third place, at least in the late 20th Century, was the Cheers bar. Those folks just showed up and they had an instant social life, and they could count on there being somebody there that they wanted to see and they wanted to hang out with.
For kids, well, for me, I had a stretch of street between my house and a house across the street where we played ball every day. There was a place in the woods, but there were these places that we just knew we could just show up, and we had a very high probability that there was going to be something going on. And today, these days, kids still yearn for that. Almost no kids have that in the physical world, and so Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat have become the de facto third place for children today, and it’s really sad.
Brett McKay: Do you have any idea what critical mass is required in a neighborhood for a Playborhood to take root? Have you been able to figure that out or see anything?
Mike Lanza: Well, yeah. I wish I could give you an exact answer, but I’ll give you my best answer by describing my neighborhood. And I know you’ll probably ask me about, specifically, what I’ve done to make my yard into a really compelling third place, a really compelling hangout for kids, but I think we’ve succeeded for the most part. And I would say, for our yard, there are certain times of day, it’s not all times of day, but certain times of day where it’s quite likely that you’ll find something going on.
Right now, it’s 10 o’clock in the morning on a weekday, and it’s dead. There’s nothing going on, and there usually isn’t. At least, on a weekday. On weekend days, there often is. But late afternoon, before dinner time, say four or five o’clock, there’s almost always something going on. There’s a lot of reasons for that. One is my family has three boys, and right now they’re 10, 11, and 15, but growing up, for the past few years, they’ve been very, very active being outside.
Next door, we have a family of three boys, slightly younger ages. There are some … By the way, there’s some houses very close to us, next door. Another next door neighbor on the side of us, they never show up here. They used to show up, but we do have a good supply of kids here, and that’s one of the reasons we moved here. And some of these kids, not all of them, become what you could call the anchor tenants, the kids who are here almost all the time, and they form the foundation. And then other kids show up because they know … They’re not next door. They’re a block away, two blocks away. If they come, there’s going to be something going on.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about what you did in your house to encourage a Playborhood, because I think it’s interesting. The end goal is the kids are making the choices, right, and directing themselves. But in order for that to happen, the parents, it seems like, have to set up an environment to make that happen, right? What you did is you found a neighborhood where there were kids and it was walkable, but then what did you do to get neighbor kids outside playing? What’s there at your house that makes it attractive?
Mike Lanza: I’ll start by saying there’s some purists out there, and I can understand this, purists of children’s play who say, “Oh my God, you did all this work. You shouldn’t be doing that. You should just kick the kids outside, and they should play on their own, because all kids really want to play.” And I agree with that theory. The problem is, we have a culture today in the 21st Century, a children’s culture that is antagonistic to play.
I talked about it before. There are so many different choices kids have, and other kids aren’t playing. It’s very deeply ingrained in kids’ minds that play is not something that they see other kids doing. They don’t see kids on TV doing it, playing in neighborhoods. I have come to believe that parents need to do some work to set up the conditions, and then I like to think, and it’s certainly happened in our case, that once you set those conditions up and create the cultural change in your neighborhood, then it has a life of its own. And we’ve seen that.
So what have we done? There’s two main components to what we’ve done. There’s the physical things we’ve done with our yard to make it into a very inviting place, and then the other side is just the social engineering, if you will, of walking around, talking to people, establishing the relationships and getting to know people in the neighborhood who … Most people don’t get to know their neighbors like we have.
The first part, the physical facility here, I live on a, let’s see, it’s 150-foot long by 50-foot wide lot. That’s 7500 square feet. That’s average, where we live. We live in Menlo Park, California. It’s, I guess, kind of suburban. It’s big for a city lot, but it’s not that big for a suburban lot. It’s not that big.
But what I did was I looked at our yard, and I rethought, literally, honestly every square foot outside of our house, I rethought in terms of how we could use it, rather than how can I make it look like the other yards in the neighborhood? Or how can I make it look right for selling the house? I don’t plan on selling the house, but it’s amazing, if you sit and think about it, how people, they don’t think about how to use their space outside their house. They’re always thinking about, “Oh, what are the other neighbors doing?” They’ve got these shrubs, and they’ve got these flower gardens. They’ve got all of this other stuff that actually isn’t useful at all. That’s the highlight.
What we’ve done is, we have all sorts of great facilities. In the front yard, the first thing we did was I tore out the pavers. Pavers are these stones in our driveway, which the real estate agent will tell you, “Oh, it’s luxurious, and everybody wants pavers.” Pavers are horrible for kids, for a driveway, because they’re not smooth.
What do kids want to do on a driveway? They like to roll little wheels. They like to roll scooters, rollerblades. They like to ride bikes. They like to play basketball. They like to play bouncy ball. They like to draw with sidewalk chalk. All of that doesn’t work on a driveway with pavers, or bricks, or gravel. Smooth. So I had the pavers taken out. We put smooth concrete there. As smooth as we could get it. That’s paid many, many dividends over the years.
We’ve also put in a picnic table in our front yard, not our backyard, because our backyard, where we live in Northern California, is fenced in. I grew up in a place where we didn’t have any fences. I like seeing my neighbors. For some reason, where we live in Northern California, the custom is to put fences everywhere, because for some reason, you don’t want to see your neighbors. I don’t know.
But when we eat outside, we like to see our neighbors. So we have a lot of dinners in our front yard, at our picnic table, and people walking out on the street, they take walks in the evening. They take walks with their dog. We almost always start a conversation with somebody. We see someone we know. It’s very social.
We have a lot of other things. We have 30 feet of whiteboard in the front yard. We have some public art. Some mosaics that we’ve made with a local artist. We used to have a sandbox out there. We’ve taken it away since our kids are older. We used to have a play river in the backyard.
By the way, I’ll say, I originally thought, “We’re not doing anything in the backyard, because we need to be out in front meeting people and seeing people. There’s no good in us being in the backyard where people don’t see us.” But we’ve gotten a reputation. People have gotten to know our yard. We have space in our backyard. So we put some amazing things in our backyard. A huge playhouse that we do sleepovers in. An in-ground trampoline. Ground-level, which is much safer than a trampoline that’s above ground. It’s also a lot more fun.
We have a play structure. We have a zip-line. We have a lot of critical mass, and you might say, “Oh, my gosh. That’s a lot of money. That’s a lot of resources.” It is, but you need to consider, we live in a neighborhood with very expensive homes, and kids have the most amazing electronics inside the houses that you can imagine. We’re in a competition. We’re in the competition with a place where every kid has an iPad. Every kid has hundreds of channels of television. We’ve got a really compelling place.
That’s the physical facilities. On the other side, especially when my kids were younger, we were out playing in the street or in our front yard pretty much every day after dinner. Some days before dinner, like in the winter, if I had the time to take off of work. We were out knocking on doors. We would very most likely walk to our grocery store, or ride bikes to our grocery store, rather than drive. We got to know our neighbors. We really spent a lot of time out there.
Our kids became very comfortable being there. They got to know other people. We got to know people, even families that don’t have kids, and a lot of empty nesters, older people, they’ve turned out to be great assets, as well. For instance, about five houses down, there’s a guy who is a hangover of the hippie generation. He’s still got really long hair. He looks different, kind of scary to some people. But actually, we’ve gotten to know him. He is a magician. He’s a wonderful magician. He comes to our house a couple times a year still for parties. He’s become a great asset.
A lot of neighborhoods have people like that that they probably don’t even know about. The two components are changing the physical facilities, and then also getting to know the people in the neighborhood very well, making our kids comfortable with them, and getting to know the other kids who live in the neighborhood.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that second component is really important, because some people might hear like, “Oh, I’ll just make my house a lot of fun.” But it’s not like “if you build it, they will come.” Right? There also, a cultural change has to occur, and that’ll take work. It might take months. It might even take years for it to take root.
Mike Lanza: I hate to say it, it takes years. But honestly, we’ve had fun every step of the way. At this point, our kids are very self-managing. I won’t lie, there’s chaos in our yard quite often, but there’s hardly ever any real danger, and our kids can occupy themselves, have fun on their own, and they also go to other friends’ houses.
Another component I haven’t even talked about is kids being independently mobile. We’re very big on bikes. Biking. Our kids do not get driven to school at all, or picked up from school at all. They ride their bikes to and from school every day. They’re very able, as other kids in our neighborhood are, they’re very able to go to other kids’ houses without us hovering over them.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s go to this part about, you mentioned okay, you were listing off all the things you did physically to change your house, to make it more inviting for play. You said, “Oh, that’s a lot of resources.” But what I like about the book is you also highlight other neighborhoods, and other individuals, who they were able to create a Playborhood, but maybe didn’t have to do what you had to do. But they were still able to do it with even limited resources.
Mike Lanza: Yeah, well, for instance, the book has a few chapters on other neighborhoods, and has a chapter on my neighborhood. I also have a two-page spread on an apartment complex. That was actually very easy to write, because the apartments themselves are small. They don’t have air conditioning. A couple stay-at-home moms decided, “We’re just going to put a chair outside every day during the summer, and we’re going to sit around and chat.” The kids come out, and the mothers really don’t have to do much at all.
Someone just bought a TV. They put a cardboard box out. The kids play with the cardboard box all day. They bring out a bunch of kitchen implements, and the kids have a play kitchen that they’ve created. The amount of effort that parents have to do to get that play started depends on how much you have inside your house. Because, like I said before, what we’re really trying to do is we’re trying to get the neighborhood to compete with the alternatives that kids have.
In a neighborhood where there’s just a courtyard, in an apartment complex with small apartments. If they don’t have air conditioning, especially, it’s very easy to get kids to go outside and play all day. There are other neighborhoods in between my neighborhood, which is a nice, suburban neighborhood, and that apartment complex. Very different examples from a really cool hipster neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, a new urbanist community in Alabama, and a very low-income street in the South Bronx, which is generally considered to be one of the most dangerous and poorest places in the United States, that has an amazing play street that happens every day throughout the summer.
Brett McKay: Also, the book, you highlight, besides making a place a fun place for kids to hang out, in addition to that is that cultural component of just being outside all the time with your kids, playing, so other families see “Oh, this is something that’s normal. We can do this, too.” You also highlight other things that families have done to promote that sense of cohesion. Just one-time events. It could be a movie night, or something like that.
Mike Lanza: Yeah, well, I’m ambivalent about the one-time events, and let me explain. I think they can be really good, and a big thing that we do around here is we have these block parties. There’s also some neighborhoods will plan a play day for kids. Some neighborhoods will figure out a time just when they can block off their street, and it’s not a block party, but it’s just, well, there are different ways to do that. One neighborhood I know has done something like I’ve done. They’ve done a neighborhood summer camp. They do it one week every year.
These can be really, really good. I think that the hesitation I have is that I would say that the event shouldn’t be, is not the end in itself. What it does is it helps you create relationships, and help you to start changing culture. But it should be a catalyst. The goal should be play every day. Or on a regular basis, at least a couple times a week. If kids are not in that habit, then they’re going to have other habits. The big question I have is, “What do kids choose to do when they have some free time in an afternoon? Where does their mind go?” I want them to be in the habit of doing things on their own.
But the events can be wonderful. My favorite, the last one I mentioned, the neighborhood summer camp, can really change the culture of a neighborhood. The cool thing about it is it’s old-school. It’s just kids from the immediate neighborhood getting together every day for one week, and having a blast.
The one that I write about in the book is a neighborhood where, it’s in Palo Alto, California. Very close to where I am. Where they’ve created a scheme of camp counselors from, I think they call them junior counselors, no, counselors-in-training, junior counselors, senior counselors. They’ve got every, throughout the teens, they’ve got all the kids with different kinds of roles.
They end up getting the kids, all from four years-old up to 17. In this neighborhood, a couple years, I remember asking them, well, one year, I remember of 65 kids who live in that neighborhood, they had 61 kids participate. That’s all the kids between four and 17. Really, to have that comprehensive participation means that everybody gets to know each other. When you’re living your everyday life, you see people you know. You see people you have a warm feeling for. That creates a habit of repeated relationships, repeated playdates and get-togethers all year. That’s really an example of a catalyst that actually can have a lasting effect all year.
Brett McKay: Well, here’s another cultural problem that people might run up to, or that they think exists. Because I think some people might be listening to this, “Okay, that sounds great. I’m going to make my house awesome for kids to hang out and play. But I’m worried about getting sued, if a kid falls off the roof of a tree house.” Is that a legitimate concern? Or do you think it’s overblown?
Mike Lanza: Well, I think it’s a legitimate concern. But I don’t think people should consider it a big enough concern to outweigh the benefit. There’s a lot of legitimate concerns. Every time you step in your car, and turn on the car, and drive away, you’re decreasing your life expectancy. Driving is a very dangerous thing, but we do it every day, because we’ve decided that the benefits of driving are worth the costs.
Well, it’s the same thing with inviting kids with a lot of fun play facilities, even like a trampoline, like we have. There’s just costs and there’s benefits to doing that. I would say a few things about that. First of all, you can try to mitigate the risks. One of the things we’ve done is we have a ground-level trampoline versus an above-ground trampoline. You could try to mitigate the risks, and you should do that, but you can’t eliminate risk completely. You just can’t. There’s going to be risks in your yard.
Another thing I’ll say is that something remarkable happens if you have a real Playborhood environment like we do, where kids are coming over on a regular basis. You find that, and this sounds sarcastic, but everybody thinks when they first have kids that kids are crazy, and all they want to do is dangerous things and hurt themselves. Kids actually don’t want to hurt themselves.
Kids actually think about their personal safety, if you give them enough time with some situations that are potentially dangerous. They’ll push their limits a little more every time. What you find, in our yard, is that kids become very good at taking risks. We have a trampoline, and we have kids jumping on it every day here. We’ve had, in 10 years, two accidents that required any sort of medical attention. Both of them were a few stitches in the lip, or elsewhere on the face. That’s, I think, a pretty remarkable record given the amount of activity we’ve had on this trampoline.
But kids become very good at it. Pretty much every kid who comes here, who comes for any length of time, learns how to do flips. Front flips, back flips. We also have a two-story playhouse right next to this trampoline. They’re jumping 10 feet, 12 feet, down onto the trampoline. They’re doing really crazy, risky things, but they’ve learned how to take risks. By the way, that’s an important thing in life, because we want our kids to grow up and to try to get a raise. To try to start a new company. We want them to take risks in their careers. Well, they’re learning how to do that in our yard. They’re being very successful at it.
The last thing I’ll say is about this question of risk and being sued is, another thing we do is I try to get to know other parents. I get to know pretty much all of the parents of kids who come here. I think it’s less likely. I think it becomes less likely because of that, that they’re going to try to sue me. We also, we try to do things to mitigate the risk of kids having bad accidents, whether like an in-ground trampoline. But we’re not going to wipe it out completely. You end up with some probability of being sued.
Let’s compare that to the probability that my kids are going to have a better life. That they’re going to have more fun. That they’re going to have a wonderful childhood. That’s probably 50%, 60%, 70%. I’ll take those odds any time. The probability of being sued, I don’t know. It’s .1%? Is it .01%? I don’t know what it is. The probability of them having a better life is 50, 60, 70%. I’ll take those odds any time.
Brett McKay: That’s what umbrella insurance is for, probably. Right? Having a good-
Mike Lanza: To be totally honest, I just don’t like the insurance industry. I feel like they have a way of getting out of paying up in a lot of circumstances. I don’t know exactly what my insurance covers. I have insurance. I have umbrella insurance, but I’m not counting on it. I’m betting the odds that things are going to work out, and that’s life. If you’re really that afraid, you really shouldn’t be driving your car.
Brett McKay: Right, right. Speaking of that idea of risk, I mean, another reason why kids aren’t playing outside is that parents are afraid that their kids are going to get abducted, right? We’ve had Lenore Skenazy on the podcast to talk about this. Again, it’s overblown, right? It’s not that big of a risk. It’s okay. Your kid is more likely to get struck by lightning than get abducted by a stranger.
Mike Lanza: Yeah, I mean, Lenore, that’s her shtick, is breaking that down, and breaking that fear down, and really getting people to not rate it so highly in their mind. They definitely overrate the possibility of that happening. The probability is not zero. The probability exists, but it’s really low. I think really, honestly, I think that the biggest problem is not that people are fearful, but that they actually don’t, they can’t imagine that their kids could have so much fun.
What I’ve found is, parents that have various hesitations. They want their kids to be in activities all the time, or they’re afraid their kids are going to get abducted. They bring their kids over to our yard, and they’re just amazed at the joy the kids have, in really playing with abandon that a lot of kids just don’t have in their lives today. Parents need to experience that. I think that will really wither away the hesitations that people have that seem irrational.
Brett McKay: When I was a kid, one of the things that we did was play Capture the Flag at night. That involved, it was all the neighbor kids in the street. We would be hiding in neighbors’ garden beds at the side of their house, and in the backyard, jumping over fences. Parents didn’t, like no one cared, because all the parents, those were the neighbor kids’ houses, right? There was a buy-in. The parents didn’t care.
I imagine if that happened today, there’d be people on the Nextdoor app, right, complaining about, “There’s kids jumping my fence.” I guess my question I’m going there with this is, how do you get buy-in from neighbors who don’t have kids, right? It sounds like it’s not that big of a problem, because you mentioned the magician guy. Is that an issue, where creating a Playborhood, where you have neighbors who don’t have kids who are just like, “I don’t want that. It’s too much ruckus. Too much noise.” Or-
Mike Lanza: Well, I’ll say this. Generally speaking about, I’m going to make a comment about the neighbor reaction. Just like a lot of things in life, there’s a bell curve distribution. We have, on the one hand, people who are the least enthusiastic, and on the other end, we have people who are the most enthusiastic. In the middle are people who they kind of like it. They think it’s pretty cool, but it’s not going to change their lives in any measurable way.
The first end, of people who aren’t enthusiastic, for the most part, they’re not against us. They’re not antagonistic to what we’re doing. It’s that we just don’t have any impact on their life at all. They blow by us. They don’t think about us. We’re just these weird people who are doing something different. We don’t really upset them.
I do have one neighbor who, an older woman, and who lives with her husband. They’re, I guess, in their early 70s, I would say. She’s a very nice person. Nice to talk to. She came up to me, and she basically said she doesn’t think that our kids should be playing on the street. Riding their bikes, riding their scooters. We live on a street that’s very calm. I’ve actually, because I’m a geek about kids’ play, and I’ve written this book, I actually have spent time counting cars.
It ends up being about one car every couple of minutes, which isn’t bad. One car every two minutes, three minutes. Something like that. But she just thinks kids should not be on the street. I tried to listen to her, and I said, “Well, I’ll do this for you. I or some other adult will be on the sidewalk keeping an eye on our kids when they’re in the street. But I’m not going to tell our kids they can’t go in the street.” Quite honestly, I feel like the street is as much our kids’ as any car that goes by. It’s everybody’s property. It’s not the sole domain of any car that wants to pass by.
She wasn’t happy about that. We’re not real friendly these days. I feel a bit bad about that, but I’m just not going to give up. I’m not going to tell my kids they can’t play in the street. I think that it’s, if you really stop and think about it, why is it that some people think that cars have total carte blanche to do whatever they want on streets, no matter what street it is? If it’s the interstate highway, I get it. But a street that gets a car every three or four minutes? I think kids have as much right to it as cars do.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean, if I couldn’t play in the street when I was a kid, there would be no street hockey. There wouldn’t have been any baseball games, because that’s where we played.
Mike Lanza: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah, the street … Like, it wasn’t that big of a deal. As soon as the car came, you said, “Game off.” Like on Wayne’s World. Went to the side. The car would pass, and then you would go back to playing. It was not a big deal.
Mike Lanza: Yeah, yeah. I’ll tell you, to be honest, is that some people, neighbors might not like this, but there was, my kids have on and off played street hockey in the street in front of our house for years. They’re not doing it right now, but they’ll probably start this fall again. There was a time we were playing a lot, and we put the goals right in the middle of the street, and when a car would come, I did not run really fast to grab the goal. I would take my good old sweet time, and I would grab that goal, and I would nice and easy pull that goal off to the side.
I made the driver know that this is not a great street to pass through. That’s the kind of thing that my friends and I did. We didn’t like cars passing through. We didn’t feel like we owned the street, but we felt like, “Hey, this is our place, and maybe you might want to take another route the next time you think about driving through a neighborhood.”
Brett McKay: To this point of having these difficult conversations, that’s part of being in a community. Oftentimes, when people think about a community, they always think of the happy stuff, like the day camp that moms put on, and it’s great. But the other part of being a community is it takes work. It requires having those difficult conversations. It might mean you’re not friendly with some people. But it’s something you’ve got to do if you want to have that larger goal you’re aiming for.
Mike Lanza: Yeah, yeah. It’s obvious, in life, you don’t always need to capitulate to someone else’s demands. I think it’s important that you listen to someone. You try to meet them partway. But I have this fundamental belief that streets are not just for cars. Especially, like I said, streets where there’s not a lot of traffic. I’m very happy to say that our kids feel totally comfortable in our yard, in the street, going to other people’s houses. It’s a place where it’s they’re domain. That’s a place that they feel very comfortable doing anything they want.
Brett McKay: Mike, I wonder if you have any advice. Say the thing, there’s one thing that someone could start doing, a parent who’s listening to the show, that they could start making a Playborhood happen in their neck of the woods. What would you say that one thing could be? An action they can take right now?
Mike Lanza: Well, I like to use the adage that is often attributed to Woody Allen. I think I read that he said someone else said it first, but he’s often quoted as saying, “80% of life is showing up.” There’s different ways to interpret that, but the way I like to interpret it in this context is show up in your neighborhood. Where do you show up, as parents? Do you show up in front of the television set every day after dinner? Are you working after dinner, going off in your study?
If you show up in your neighborhood with your kids, out front, if you’re walking and biking to nearby places like the grocery store, or to the park, rather than driving. If you’re showing up at neighbors’ houses, knocking on the door, chatting with them. Your kids will definitely get the sense that this is normal. This is a place that is worthy of my parents’ attention, and this is worthy of my attention, as well. I say show up in your neighborhood as often as you can.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Well, Mike, is there some place people can go to learn more about the book and your work?
Mike Lanza: Well, there’s the book, Playborhood, available on Amazon.com. The website, I haven’t been blogging for the past couple of years, but there’s a couple hundred blog articles on Playborhood.com. By the way, there’s, well I guess it’s not so easy to find, but there’s lots of disciples of Playborhood. Lot’s of instances of people trying to create Playborhoods throughout the United States, and in the book, there’s examples of other neighborhoods, we just touched on briefly, each of those is really fascinating in its own right.
For instance, I mentioned this place in Portland, Oregon called Share-It Square, and it’s part of the city repair movement. That’s one of many examples that are just fascinating for different ideas, different approaches to how to create a great place for play for kids.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Well, Mike Lanza, thanks for this time. It’s been a pleasure.
Mike Lanza: Brett, thank you so much.
Brett McKay: My guest today is Mike Lanza. He is the author of the book, Playborhood. It’s available on Amazon.com. You can also find out more information abut his work at his website Playborhood.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/playborhood.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years on parenting, how to dress better, sports, fitness, you name it, we’ve got it. If you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the Art of Manliness Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Go to StitcherPremium.com, use code MANLINESS at checkout to get a month free trial of Stitcher Premium. Once you’re signed up, you can download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and start enjoying ad-free episodes of the Art of Manliness Podcast.
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