The Magazine

Play’s the Thing

Send children outside, and let them be children.

Jan 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17 • By ABBY W. SCHACHTER
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Serial entrepreneur Mike Lanza can’t believe what’s happened to childhood. Growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, Lanza spent hours after school, outside and unsupervised, playing with neighborhood kids of different ages. Today, practically the opposite is the case. Kids hardly spend any time outside, let alone have unstructured, unsupervised fun. Instead, they spend a tremendous amount of time inside looking at screens or in cars being shuttled from one adult-organized, age-segregated activity to another. Lanza is now on a mission to encourage parents to turn off the screens, open the front door, and get kids out of the house and into their new lives of free play. 

In Playborhood, he argues that outdoor play among big groups of kids of various ages will improve the lives of those kids. He says that play helps provide a good life for children, and it turns out there’s plenty of research to prove his point. Take evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray’s research, for example. Gray explains that today’s kids are having a hard time successfully growing into adulthood because they are overprotected, over-pressured, and are not given enough time for free play. Since 1960, Gray writes, 

[A]dults began chipping away at [kids’] freedom by increasing the time that children had to spend at schoolwork and .  .  . by reducing children’s freedom to play on their own. .  .  . Adult-directed sports for children began to replace “pickup” games; adult-directed classes out of school began to replace hobbies; and parents’ fears led them, ever more, to forbid children from going out to play with other kids, away from home, unsupervised. There are lots of reasons for these changes but the effect, over the decades, has been a continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways.

The result, Gray argues, has been more mental illness among the young, less empathy, and less socialization. Lanza couldn’t agree more. Moreover, to Lanza’s way of thinking, building independence and self-reliance in children is a value and goal of parenting that has all but disappeared. Our children need to learn to do things on their own in order to grow into fully functioning, responsible adults, he writes, as he helpfully enumerates the “developmentally valuable tasks” kids will gain by playing pickup games. When kids “decide what to play, recruit players, decide where to play, improvise rules, settle disputes, decide how to conclude the game and bend the rules for less able players,” they are actually learning how to behave and get along with others. “Our challenge as parents,” he writes, “is to create physical gathering places in our neighborhoods that will be more attractive than [the] alternatives.”

Lanza decided to compete for his kids’ attention by nearly banning screens inside his house and tricking out the front and back yards of his Menlo Park, California, home to get his children and their neighbors to play outside. Lanza has also devoted time, money, and energy to making the outside of his house as inviting for children’s free play as possible. He’s installed a water feature, a white board and markers, a trampoline, various places to sit and store toys and games, a colorful driveway, and a playhouse in an effort to get his own kids, and other children, to join in the fun outside. Lanza even runs a camp one week every summer to have kids come by every day and play. 

This might seem like excessive devotion to a seemingly simple problem; but anyone raising children these days can attest to the entrenched reality Lanza is trying to change. He is correct that screens are enticing and attractive enough to draw in nearly every kid. It does take a major effort to get kids to go outside and stay there for any length of time. And parental fears about the possibility of harm coming to our children prevents many of us from embracing Lanza’s call for unsupervised free play out of doors. 

Lanza addresses many of these concerns, and is even defiant when responding to critics who worry that he’ll be sued for allowing kids to play in his yard:

[T]he probability that my kids will have a much better childhood because I’ve made [my front yard] into a hangout is very high, close to 100 percent .  .  . almost a 100 percent chance of a better childhood vs. a very, very small chance of getting sued. I’ll take that deal anytime.

Beyond his own yard, Lanza has gone looking for communities where his emphasis on outdoor play is similarly valued. He found places in Oregon, a street in the Bronx, a new suburban housing development in Alabama, and communities in Washington and Iowa that share his vision. But Lanza’s mission isn’t strictly limited to promoting free play: He offers advice about the positive benefits of walking or biking instead of driving, and he explains why families should sit down together for dinner every night. He also advocates oral storytelling and reading to children as often as possible. At heart, Lanza wants readers to understand that, contra Hillary Rodham Clinton, it doesn’t take a global village to raise a child; it takes an actual, physical one. 

“I strongly believe that it takes a village—an old-fashioned, tight-knit neighborhood—to raise a child. Not some ‘network of values and relationships,’ ” Lanza declares. 

He suggests building physical community by sharing parenting responsibilities among neighboring families with similarly aged children, planting a community garden, having regular community dinners, running a neighborhood summer camp, and organizing block parties. This advice goes beyond the question of playing outside as a means of improving the quality of kids’ lives, however. This is about improving quality of life for all, because there are practical and long-term benefits for adults as well as kids to having a physical community. Not least is the knowledge that you are not alone in this world. And given that many of us do not live near family, the surrounding community can serve the same function—and help us to feel safer, more secure, and happier. 

Abby W. Schachter writes the CaptainMommy.com blog on parenting and government policy.