We talk a lot about the sad fact that kids these days don't "go out and play" the way we did when we were kids. There are various reasons why, but the biggest one is that parents are just too scared to let their kids out of their sight.
According to a recent Parents poll, 89 percent of us won't let our kids walk to school without an adult. Yet, as Cara Birnbaum says in her article, "Fear and Parenting in America," kids are much safer today than they were years ago. Crime rates are down, and even the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children opposes the use of the term "stranger danger." Although we know that being overprotective makes it harder for our children to learn to be confident and independent, it can be tough to let go.
However, we can't solve the neighborhood play problem by simply telling our kids, "Unplug those electronic gadgets and go outside and play!'" writes Mike Lanza in his book, Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood into a Place for Play. "Many parents I know have done this, and of course, their kids come running inside, complaining that there's nothing to do outside, that it's boring out there."
Lanza's family, who lives in Menlo Park, California, set out to change that situation. He transformed his front yard into a cool hangout for kids, parents, and dogs. There is a large picnic table, a fountain and play river, a basketball hoop, a garage full of toys, and a smooth driveway (perfect for scootering and chalk-drawing) that has a map of the neighborhood on it. His backyard has a two-story playhouse and an in-ground trampoline. "We have kids come over every day," Lanza told me. "The rule at our place is that anyone can use our yards whether we're home or not."
In addition to making his home a destination, this sense of community made it easier for Lanza to let his children go unsupervised. At age 5, his oldest son, Marco, learned to stay within the three-block range he and his wife outlined for him, and to stay out of the street. At 6, he learned to go to certain neighbors' houses on his bike or on foot, and at 7, he started riding his bike to school. At 8, he started organizing play sessions with his friends.
His book and website have lots of details about how to create a playborhood (you even can buy a yellow sign like the one in the photo), but you certainly don't have to go to the extreme lengths that Lanza did. What are some of the first simple steps to take? "Seating is key," he says. "Kids love to run around and play, but they'll hang out for longer if parents have a place to sit." Having a sandbox, for example, is an easy way to make your yard seem fun and inviting. Here's a place to order a custom play map of your own neighborhood that's perfect for toy cars and trucks.
After all, fun helps fight fear. "Most people say that when they know their neighbors a least a little bit, they feel safer in their neighborhood," says Lanza.
Diane Debrovner is the deputy editor of Parents and the mother of two girls. You can follow her @ddebrovner.