Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood into a Place for Play

Gray, Peter
American Journal of Play

Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood into a Place for Play Mike Lanza Menlo Park, CA: Free Play Press, 2012. Figures, images, notes, index. 238 pages. $9.95 paper. isbn: 9780984929818My parents moved a lot. Between my fourth and fourteenth birthdays (mostly in the 1950s), I lived in eight different neighborhoods, in six different cities or villages. Yet, finding friends to play with, and exciting things to play at, never seemed a problem. All I had to do was go outside, and there they were. Kids were everywhere and could go everywhere. Every community had its own kids’ play culture. In one village, we spent huge amounts of time at pick-up baseball, kite building, and, in winter, skating down ice slides that we made on the steep hill behind the school. In another village, we played mostly on the lake. We swam, fished, rowed, skated, and skied on it, all the time exploring it and the life within and around it. Adults almost never joined us in these activities or even knew what we were doing.But the world is different now. For various reasons, most parents today do not allow their young children to play and explore freely outdoors, away from adults. Those kids who are allowed to do so, often have nobody to play with. So they go back inside to the more certain company of television and computers. This is a serious problem. As opportunities for free outdoor play have declined, children’s physical health, mental health, psychological resilience, and sense of personal control over their lives have also declined. What can be done to reverse all this? Mike Lanza’s Playborhood provides the best set of answers I have found yet to this vexing question.When Mike and his wife started a family, a few years ago, they were determined to provide their kids-which now number three young boys-the opportunity to play freely outdoors with other kids. To do so, they turned their Menlo Park, California, neighborhood into a playborhood-a place for outdoor play. Step one was to create all sorts of interesting play opportunities in their own front yard. The front yard, not the back, because the front is the part of the yard that neighbors can see and feel most comfortable entering. They put a fountain there and a play river for kids to splash in and run toy boats down, a smooth concrete driveway for all kinds of hard-surfaced play, a basketball hoop, a large whiteboard and markers for drawing, a sandbox, a picnic table, and benches that serve also as weatherproof toy boxes. Big playthings that-for practical reasons or because of town ordinances-could not go in the front went into the back yard. These included an in-ground trampoline, swing set, and two-story playhouse. The idea was that once neighborhood kids felt welcomed in the front yard, they would begin to explore the back yard too and to feel welcome there.But just building this was not enough. Mike had to change the culture of the neighborhood-for both adults and kids. He had to convince parents that it was OK for their children to play outside on his lawn, even when none of the Lanzas was out there, and he also had to help kids learn how to play. His ultimate goal always was self-reliance for his kids and their friends, so they would invent their own games and completely control their own play. But, in a neighborhood with no existing play culture, how do you get that started? Not surprisingly, children who have never played independently outside and did not have models of others at play needed some help. …