This weekend’s New York Times has a major feature and profile on Mike Lanza and his Playborhood campaign to make neighbourhoods more play-friendly. And it’s whipping up a storm. In this piece, I give my take on the campaign and my response to the key criticisms.
First, some background. Lanza’s rallying cry is “turn your neighborhood into a place for play” – a goal he has been pursuing for at least nine years. His book and blog are first and foremost a set of practical advice, ideas and case studies for achieving that goal.
Lanza first got into the issue because of his concerns as a dad bringing up three children. What drives him is, in large part, the contrast between his own typically free-range 70s childhood and the highly constrained lives of most children today. I share his view that this change marks a profound loss.
Lanza’s campaign is aimed squarely at parents. He has three big messages for them: you should care about your kids’ play and everyday freedoms, you can and should take steps to expand them, and you should start with your own home and neighbourhood. The youtube video below introduces Lanza and his Playborhood idea.
The Playborhood home page features endorsements from writer Richard Louv, Kaboom! CEO Darell Hammond, and play and children’s rights campaigner Joan Almon, amongst others. Psychologist and play advocate Peter Gray, in his review, says that he “provides the best set of answers I have found yet to the vexing question” of reversing the decline in outdoor play. The book has garnered generally favourable reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.
Lanza is by his own account a successful tech entrepreneur. In his own neighbourhood – Menlo Park in California’s Silicon Valley – he has focused on transforming his house “from a display of conspicuous consumption to a community center for kids” (to quote from one review). As the NY Times piece shows, a big part of this is turning his own front yard into an engaging play space and social spot for local people of all ages.
A lot of the Playborhood material – and certainly a lot of Lanza’s blog posts – draw on his own experience and neighbourhood, which is affluent and suburban. However, the book includes case studies from a range of localities, including low and middle income areas.
At this point you might well be asking ‘what’s not to like?’ Well, if you’ve read Melanie Thernstrom’s piece in the NY Times you will see that she found quite a lot not to like. That article has in turn prompted a prominent follow-up blog post by Kathryn Jezer-Morton on the website Jezebel that is even more critical.
I’m going to respond to the main criticisms of Playborhood in those two pieces. My focus will be on the idea and approach, rather than on the personal attacks (feel free to see this as modelling behaviour).
Both pieces accept Lanza’s premise that the decline in free play is a problem. Their criticisms focus on his views of its causes, and his proposed solutions.
I will start with perhaps the most damning accusation in Thernstrom’s piece: that Lanza sees overprotective mothers as the biggest problem. Setting out what she calls Lanza’s ‘mom philosophy,’ she says: “in Mike’s worldview, boys today (his focus is on boys) are being deprived of masculine experiences by overprotective moms, who are allowed to dominate passive dads.”
It’s not hard to see why this would provoke anger, and not just from moms who see yet another social problem being dumped on them. But is this a fair representation of Lanza’s position? For myself, I see very little to support it.
Chapter 1 [pdf link] of Playborhood – where Lanza sets out some of the causes of what he calls “the free play problem” – does mention working mothers as one of a number of what he calls “problem frames”. But he does not consider it further. Likewise, his website has – from what I can see – almost nothing that could be construed as setting out or critiquing a ‘mom philosophy’.
The Playborhood Facebook page has a long response to the NY Times piece, and in particular the accusation of being anti-mom. It says:
“when the NYTimes fact checker interviewed me a few days ago, I *clearly* said that I did *not* think that mothers were more likely than fathers to be overprotective if they spent equal time parenting, and that mothers could only be construed to be more protective insofar as they spend more time parenting.”
So has Thernstrom made stuff up? Clearly I cannot say that. In the same Facebook post, Lanza concedes that he may have – after a few glasses of wine – made a remark that could have been construed along these lines. But even if he did, it seems very unfair to me to characterise this as his ‘worldview’.
Risk and danger
The second criticism in Thermstrom’s piece is Lanza’s take on risk. She feels uncomfortable with some of his judgements about how much freedom kids should be allowed, and whether/when to step in. She says at one point that, for Lanza, “low-probability events are very unlikely and therefore dismissible; for me, they are tragedies that befall someone.”
Thermstrom’s quote expresses what I call a ‘zero risk’ mindset: that some choices are guaranteed to be risk-free. It is linked with the parental norm that being a good parent means being a controlling parent, which is dominant in many high income countries. The truth is that both the mindset and the norm are highly problematic, and need challenging.
The zero risk childhood is simply a fantasy. As soon as child gets out of bed, things can go wrong. Let’s set to one side the hundreds of child deaths each year in car crashes; one wonders if Thermstrom has given any thought to the dozens of American children a year killed by furniture falling on them.
As for the ‘controlling parent’ norm, it ignores the fact that giving children a degree of freedom – which may involve some challenging or frightening situations – actually helps them learn how to keep themselves healthy and safe. Lanza’s perspective – which I wholly support – is that as they grow up, children gradually need to be allowed time and space when they try responsibility on for size and learn what it is like to be an independent person. This means that the adults have to figure out ways to step back and allow situations to unfold, even if there is a possibility their child might get hurt or upset.
Of course, stepping back is not easy. When, how far and for how long to step back depends on circumstances and specifics. What is more, different parents have different views on risk. As I have written before, it is rarely helpful for anyone to try to second-guess these sometimes difficult judgement calls, which are rarely cut-and-dried. But what can be questioned are the values and (yes) worldviews that shape them.
Life is uncertain and unpredictable. Some celebrate this fact. Others bemoan it. Either way, the implication is clear: being thoughtful about safety means taking a balanced approach to risk.
Only for the rich
The third criticism of Lanza – more prominent in Jezer-Morton’s piece – is that his approach is solely for the rich: it is at best ignorant of, and at worst hostile to, families in less privileged circumstances. Jezer-Morton’s article ends: “Mike Lanza’s accomplishment amounts to a rich person fluffing his already extremely fluffy nest.”
Lanza’s own Playborhood project is indeed in a wealthy neighbourhood, which brings many advantages (though I suspect some downsides too). It has clearly benefited from his willingness to spend money on creating what sounds like a great social play space for his kids. But as has already been pointed out, he has a broader canvas, and some revealing case studies from less privileged contexts.
The revolutionary feature of his space – which Jezer-Morton appears to have completely missed out on – is not its cost: it is that it extends to his front yard. It is a community-facing resource as well as a generous, open offer to his neighbours. As this sidewalk photo shows, much of the focus of Playborhood is on public space.
Lanza’s wider point is not about bigging up his own self-built play space. It is that if parents want to give their kids more everyday freedom, a good place to start is their own home and street, and a good way forward is to build collective support and action in their own neighbourhoods.
Both pieces describe Lanza as a libertarian. That may or may not be true, but the Playborhood approach is best described as communitarian rather than libertarian. It is founded on the idea of local people pooling their resources for the greater good of their community. As such it is a profound rejection of the kind of individualism and competitiveness that so often pits parents (and perhaps especially more affluent, well-resourced parents) against one another.
It is obvious that parents in more affluent neighbourhoods do not face anything like the same challenges as those in less affluent ones. They have more time, money, power and wherewithal to get things done, better homes and outdoor environments, and greater freedom of action.
In the USA the social safety net for poor families is so precarious that even the prospect of having to take time off to look after an injured child can be enough to provoke parental anxiety (as Jezer-Morton rightly points out). And in many neighbourhoods, streets and public spaces are so hostile that no amount of community activity is likely to make them places suitable for play.
In the UK our welfare state, employment rights and health services, while not perfect, are far less punitive to the poor. But even here, experience with ‘play streets’ (resident-led, short-term road closures to allow children to play in the street) shows that in the most disadvantaged areas, finding a critical mass of parents with the time, energy and capacity to take on the bureaucracy involved can be hard. (I have researched this for Play England and hope the findings will be published soon.)
So there are limits to the potential of communitarian approaches like Playborhood. Many communities need significant support from beyond their borders if they are to secure the kind of play opportunities and everyday freedoms that are on offer in Lanza’s neighbourhood. If Lanza says that all communities have the capacity to do all this by themselves, and there is no role for proactive support from outside agencies or Government, then he’s just wrong.
However, if Lanza’s libertarianism is – in this context – focused on the damage caused by unnecessary bureaucracy and regulations, then it is a valid point. One lesson from play streets is that the simpler the paperwork for setting them up, the more likely they are to get off the ground. And this paperwork is squarely in the hands of government. I have devoted much of my professional life to fighting official bureaucracy – for instance, around playground safety – and have seen how harmful it can be.
So some of Lanza’s ideas may well be more suited to wealthier neighbourhoods. But not all. What is more, if the push to give children more everyday freedom to play and get around is to have real reach and impact, it will have to engage wealthy and influential parents amongst others. I hope that the play advocates who appear hostile to the Playborhood model will reflect on this.
Other criticisms have been levelled at Lanza in these two articles. And some have some validity. For instance, some of the language and attitudes attributed to him around girls and disability make for uncomfortable reading (a fact that he acknowledges in his Facebook post).
Separating the ideas from the person is important here. I have never met Mike (though on a recent holiday to the West Coast we were all set to meet at his place, until I went down with a severe head-cold). But I get the sense he is someone who, in person, can prompt strong reactions. He is without doubt passionate and driven, and can certainly be forthright in making his case (as you can see from this robust – but also constructive – exchange on my website).
What to do?
In her piece, Jezer-Morton asks a crucial question: “what are middle class parents who don’t want to helicopter to do?” Her answer starts: “making a critical mass of like-minded friends,” and she goes on to suggest ways they can hang out with their kids in relatively unobtrusive ways, such as in the next room at home, or at a local park.
The message is that parents who care about children’s everyday freedoms should find ways to come together, support each other, and give their children some space and time to be with their friends face-to-face, in situations where they are not overly supervised.
As I know from my work, this message speaks to parents in a wide range of circumstances. It is precisely what Playborhood is trying to support and promote. So it is baffling to me that it has provoked such hostility.