What’s so bad about a father trying to make the world a more play-friendly place?

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.

Playborhood book coverThe 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.

‘Mom philosophy’

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.”

Playborhood sidewalk (taken from the website)

Playborhood sidewalk (taken from the website)

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.

PLAYINGOUT LOGO colourIn 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.

14 responses to “What’s so bad about a father trying to make the world a more play-friendly place?

  1. Thanks Tim, well said. You are quicker on the draw than me. I have only proceed as far as drafting the title of my blog post on this subject after seeing some pretty vituperative invective online related to the NY Times Magazine piece. I’ll add my voice to the chorus when I can find some writing time over the weekend. My working title at this point is – Of ‘hoods, ‘ologies and the pursuit of play. Cheers from Nova Scotia

  2. i love this and could not agree more.

  3. The Daily Mail just published a pretty straight-up piece on Playborhood, and addressed some of the disputed quotes in the New York Times. Hmm… Is a British tabloid on higher journalistic ground than the best paper across the pond? Here’s the article.

  4. Reblogged this on PlayGroundology and commented:
    This post by Tim Gill at Rethinking Childhood provides some valuable analysis and backstory on Mike Lanza and his perspectives on play. The New York Times Magazine published a feature story on Mike at home in his ‘playborhood’. It’s a great read and I encourage you to take a peek.

    Some readers took exception to Mike’s approach to play, kids, independence and risk in his Silicon Valley neighbourhood. I read some pointed criticism online that bordered on name-calling. It was disappointing to read this from others who are equally as passionate in their advocacy of independent play for kids. I’m a believer in bringing people together under big tents so that hand in hand with others we can move the yardsticks.

    From my perspective, Mike and I are definitely working under the same tent. I first became aware of Mike nearly six years ago and posted information about Playborhood on this blog. We corresponded a little and shared snippets of our lives. I always found him very personable and respectful. What’s more, he’s trying out new stuff that is focusing additional attention on the need and value of independent play.

    Initially I had planned to write my own post about The Anti-Helicoper Parent’s Plea: Let Kids Play but I have nothing more substantive to say than Tim. Truth be told I don’t think I can match the thoroughness or the eloquence of the Rethinking Childhood piece.

    Although not as elaborate as Mike’s backyard, our home is a gathering place for neighbourhood kids and they are all welcome to play here. We like it that way and it seems the kids do too.

  5. Hi Tim, echoing Playgroundology above, lovely piece, and expresses exactly my confusion too.

    I was quite astonished to see this article as the number one in the Editor’s picks on the Apple News app this morning. Usually it’s something relatively dull on the economy or politics. To see an article about freedom to play take priority was cool.

    I read the article not having seen any of the responses, and as all humans do I brought my own prejudices and biases to the reading, so took it that she was writing a gateway piece, with a bias towards drawing in the helicopter parents. I expect to see journalists pushing buttons and disappointing though these techniques are, she did hook me in with the set up that her children are in his children’s friendship group. I read her as a nervous mother, but now one that encourages her neighbours children to play in her back garden. Quick read, so much to cheer about. I was raised a feminist and can and do happily critique misogynists in any guise, but here in this article I just thought she was misquoting to be a little sensational… Guess that worked.

    I come to this too having just enjoyed another article from Lenore Skenazy on the experience of ‘helicoptered children’ growing up (http://www.freerangekids.com/what-becomes-of-a-helicoptered-kid/). I loved that she says “So the Free-Range movement is not anti-helicopter parent. It is anti a culture that tells us our kids are in constant danger, forcing us to hover.” Mike too does not come across as an anti-helicopter parent – mother or father – but one that is trying to model how parents and communities can think about their own spaces and what they can do about it. He models a way to push back against the creeping culture destroying children’s license to roam. And he has the guts to do so very vocally.

    Would he be so criticised if he was vocal about what the eat? Or how much they sleep?

    Like many of us that write about children’s freedom, I too have had many run-ins with neighbours around whether or not children in the block where I live can/should/could have at least a little license to roam. It is hard enough to campaign at home or publicly to change perspectives on children’s freedom to roam, to play, to be outdoors. It is harder still when we see reactions to a high profile article being to attack the advocate personally, rather than the system and cultures that are preventing so many neighbourhoods being places for play.

    When class, wealth and gender (not to mention disability) all get an issue check in an article, it seems the trolls come out in full force. I hope and believe from scanning the responses that there are many who are inspired by the vision. Let’s hope they too can ignore the haters, whether they are people that simply don’t want children playing out, people so blinded by the dominant fear culture that they just see recklessness, or people who have some fixed idea about what supporting a playful neighbourhood is and are incensed because this isn’t it. Well done for stepping up to support the Playborhood. I know I’ll continue to enjoy watching these boys grow up, and wish more communities had advocates to show what normal for them could look like.

  6. Pingback: More About Playborhood and Risk, From Tim Gill | Free Range Kids

  7. Reblogged this on grumpysutcliffe and commented:
    I am reblogging this because I think that much of it is relevant to so many people with children and grandchildren. While I am sure that most of my friends would sign up to this without question, it is still comforting to know that others have similar views!

  8. As an urban planning student, I’ve recently looked into the different faces of inclusive planning. In the UK, surprisingly, the social group that is more often overlooked is children – very good intentions, big statements about delivering public space for them to enjoy, but… at the end of the day, we can only think as adults, we struggle to see the world from the same perspective. Planners and designers focus on safety, nobody want to be blamed by any accident… totally understandable, but that ends up ruining the space, no joy at all in it

    I am originally from southern Spain, and the impact of this “sterilization” is much less acute. Don’t get me wrong, children don’t have the same freedom to play in a casual environment as they used to have 15 years ago… but still, more than their British peers. As well as the difference in climate, I am quite confident this is related to a more relaxed attitude from parents – they embrace the idea of kids playing all over the place as a desirable thing, even if that means losing a portion of control in their surveillance. This is obviously reinforced by the sense of community, trusting neighbours and promoting cooperation within the area.

  9. The two big ideas I took away from the NYT article were:
    Reclaim your front yard.. and
    Meet your neighbors.

    I think those ideas are an awesome way to help our kids reclaim our neighborhood, and city as a playspace!

    I was however, put off by the characterization of Lanza as a bit of a sexist misanthrope. The comments about ‘especially boys…’ came off, in my opinion, as reflective of a narrow world-view. Also, while there are all sorts of things I think it’s safe for my kids to do, it seems only common sense to let other parents know there’s the opportunity to jump off the roof, (for example).

    • Thanks for the comment. I share your view that one of the most radical ideas of Playborhood is reclaiming front yards – and it is truly radical. Your choice of the word ‘characterization’ is apt: it seems clear to me the NY Times piece took a strongly gendered angle, and Lanza has made his unhappiness about this clear. It is not irrelevant that he is the father of 3 boys (and the NY Times piece arguably somewhat glossed over this). As for questions about the degree of risk child visitors are exposed to, and how parents are informed about this, I find it hard to pass judgement in the absence of details about the kids, their parents and how much contact there is between the Lanza family and visitors.

    • Thanks for your comments, dolphus and Tim. The article glossed over an even more “radical” idea of mine. I’ve come to believe that public parks and playgrounds have become practically irrelevant to unsupervised children’s play. (And, unsupervised play is what concerns me most, by far.) That’s because children hardly ever roam more than a block on their own. Many kids don’t even venture outside the confines of their yards. In the past couple of decades, playgrounds have become havens for small numbers of caregivers (parents or nannies) and the preschool kids they’re watching. Scarcely few kids play independently there.

      Of course, public parks and playgrounds could become a lot more important for unsupervised play, but that would require that cities figure out how to put a park + playground on every block. I see that as *highly* unlikely. So, to resurrect unsupervised play, we need to claim any land we can as close to kids’ front yards as possible. This would include front yards, sidewalks, courtyards, vacant lots, and “SLOAP” – space left over after planning. Don’t discount the latter. There’s a lot more of that sort of land around than most people think.

  10. Pingback: Podcast Episode #7 - Growing Community Organically - The Consciously Parenting Project

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