Making playborhoods: A conversation with Mike Lanza
The neighborhood is the only place where truly free play can happen.
When he was growing up, Mike Lanza says, “Kids sort of made the neighborhood. They took the lead. They got to know other kids, and they were the social lubricant for the whole neighborhood.” But with fewer kids allowed to play outside on their own, this dynamic has changed. Mike, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, didn’t want his sons to be deprived of that kind of experience, so he created an open playground in his own front yard in Menlo Park, California. Then he went in search of other playborhoods across the country. He describes the innovative people and places he found in his book Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood into a Place for Play. In the book, he also offers practical ways to transform your own block or subdivision into a playborhood. Last week, I chatted with Mike on the phone.
NEIGHBORISTA!: When did you realize you were going to have to do something differently in order to create a better play environment for your kids?
Mike Lanza: The first “a-ha” moment was just before my first son, Marco, was born. My friend John’s son, who was 7 or 8 at the time, seemed to have all his time scheduled into activities and playdates. (I didn’t even know what a “playdate” was!) So I asked John, “Why doesn’t he just go outside and play with his friends? Why does he need to schedule all this stuff?” And John said, “Kids don’t do that anymore.” That hit me like a lead balloon. I started asking people, “Is this true? Do you have to schedule everything for your kid? They can’t just go outside and be with other kids?” And everybody I talked to said, “Yeah, that’s just the way it is.” I told myself, “I’m not raising my kids this way.” But it turned out to be much, much harder than I thought it would.
N!: Once you guys moved to your new house, did you have to take some specific steps to engage your neighbors in the idea of the playborhood?
ML: The big question is whether you build something from the ground up with neighbors or just do it and try to get people to come along with you. I did the latter. The biggest reason was that Marco was 4 by the time we bought a house, and I thought “I don’t have the patience to build from the grassroots. I want him to have a great neighborhood life before he enters elementary school.” So we went outside almost every day after dinner and played in the street and front yard. We talked to neighbors, knocked on doors, got to know people and kids. Then we rebuilt our yard from the ground up to make it a really cool hangout. So we’ve taken the lead, but a lot of folks have embraced it. I envy neighborhoods I profiled in the book — like N Street in Davis, California, or Share-it Square in Portland, Oregon — that have done it cooperatively, but it takes a long time and there’s a lot of variability. I just short-circuited the process and made it happen for myself.
N!: And folks have gotten on board, after seeing your example?
ML: It’s not evenly openly embraced by everyone who lives around us. We have some people who live many blocks away who come around a bit, and some who live a few houses down who don’t come over much. We’re not a perfect neighborhood, but the bottom line is a lot of our kids are out playing and running around every day, and they spend zero time in front of a TV.
N!: So what are the big things that neighborhood life has added to your kids’ lives and provided the kids who might benefit from a playborhood environment?
ML: Marco has asked me more than once, “Dad, do we ever have to move from here? Can I live here my whole life?” He loves where he lives. Kids in his school, they want to come over any chance they can get. That tells me they’re happy; they’re having fun; they’re physically fit; they’re running around like crazy; they’re able to occupy themselves and to be happy and have fun; they’re very in tune with nature. They create things — their own imaginative worlds, their own games. It sounds kind of basic — the stuff everyone thinks kids should be doing, but most kids can’t occupy themselves or create imaginative worlds because of the other things that are clogging up their lives these days.
N!: I like what you’ve done in giving kids the pieces they need to connect with each other and come together and make their own world out of that.
ML: The Montessori concept of the prepared environment, the tech idea of the platform, you can use whatever analogy you want, but the idea is to give kids a springboard, a stimulating environment that they can do with what they want. Kids today have so many things vying for their attention, so making the neighborhood environment really enticing and inviting makes the neighborhood into a competitor for that attention.
N!: A lot of these environmental elements are things we grownups also want so we can have a stimulating environment and neighborhood. We want variety in what we see on the street. We want playborhoods, too!
ML: And grown-ups benefit greatly from what we’ve done in our yard. One important element of a neighborhood hangout is comfort. There’s got to be comfortable seating, shade if possible. At Share-it Square, they’ve got a solar-powered tea station. You can actually have a cup of tea and sit down on the couch there. Comfort is fundamental for adults and for kids. Kids don’t want to be running around all the time. Just putting a park bench in your front yard with some shade, if possible, can make a huge difference.
N!: How did you find out about Share-it Square and the other places you profile in the book?
ML: I just kept thinking, it can’t be so bleak everywhere. There must be some places where people are having a good neighborhood life. I just need to find them. I thought I could learn from these places. They may be like species that proliferate in small pockets before they become extinct. The idea of kids running around playing outside may totally die out, but I’m hoping we can amplify these different examples and make them into sought-after places, where everyone who lives around them wants to be.
N!: I hope this kind of free-to-play neighborhood is not becoming an endangered species, but it is less and less common.
ML: There are some people who think it is extinct. People say, “That time’s over, forget it.” But I think it is the way most of us want to live. We can help people see that it’s possible and give them some tools to make it happen.
N!: So that makes us neighborhood advocates into conservationists of play . . .
ML: And community. What’s important to me is free, independent play, but not kids running away and being ignored by their parents. It’s where they’re familiar with the people around them, where the parents are familiar with the kids who are playing, with those kids’ parents, and with the place. There’s all this familiarity so that even though kids are independent on an hour-by-hour basis, parents can feel like their kids are safe, and parents can actually be involved selectively. So the neighborhood is crucial to my notion of play. It’s the only place where truly free play can happen, with supportive parents who care about their kids and want to be involved in their lives.
N!: That kind of caring community is a foundation for kids to express themselves and put a claim on a place.
ML: They can feel like it’s theirs, not some faceless place they’re inhabiting. I’m a big fan of Lenore Skenazy’s book Free-Range Kids, but I feel that term “free-range kids” is kind of shocking and makes parents feel that the only alternative to hovering over their kids is setting their kids free somewhere and running away. I don’t think that’s attractive or feasible. Kids, rather than being free range, need to be in the neighborhood where there’s a context parents are familiar and comfortable with.
Five characteristics of inviting neighborhood hangouts
Features should appeal to children of diverse ages. The Lanza family yard includes a sandbox, fountain, message board, playhouse, and trampoline.
Offer seating that’s pleasant to sit on and in the shade. Food and drinks are nice, too!
If people can’t get into the yard, they can’t hang out there. Avoid fences, gates, barriers.
Privacy is the “enemy of community relations.” Kids should be able to see each other, and parents able to see kids.
Have a collection of multiple features, because kids get bored and always want to try new things.
For more, check out the Playborhood blog, where you can order Mike’s book.
(All images courtesy Mike Lanza