— -- You’re dropping your kid off for a playdate and, suddenly, your maternal radar starts pinging. You see 9-year-olds on skate ramps with no helmets, kids wrestling Hulk Hogan-style and more kids jumping off a 10-foot roof onto a netless trampoline.
If it looks unsafe to me, it’s just the opposite for Mike Lanza, a Silicon Valley-based father of three boys with his wife, wife, Perla Ni. Lanza said this is the antidote to what he sees as the modern problems of childhood: too much screen time and overscheduled lives filled with extracurricular activities and organized sports.
Mike is the author of the book "Playborhood" and that’s the concept he designed for his Menlo Park, California home.
"We like to think of our yard and the streets around where we live as a 'playborhood,'" he told me. "In order for kids to go outside and play on their own with each other, that opportunity has to be right outside their front door, or very close."
His idea is that parents need to create a space where kids can play without many rules and feel empowered. You might call it radically unstructured play.
'We Kind of Get to Do Whatever We Want'
Caleb Kennedy, a neighbor and friend of Mike’s middle son Nico, agrees.
"We kind of get to do whatever we want," he said.
Mike has installed in his yard many of the things parents avoid, including a mini-skate park, trampoline, zip line and playhouse climbing structure that kids scale to jump from. Inside the playhouse, graffiti originally on white boards extends out onto every surface.
Mike, called the "anti-helicopter parent" in a New York Times profile, says he loves the ability for his kids and their friends to express themselves.
"Within about a half hour, every kid I have ever seen who has come here has gone wild and screams with joy and laughter and it’s just so wonderful for me to see," he said. "I really think a lot of these kids have not had that experience for most of their lives, they haven’t had the sheer joy of reckless abandon, of wild play. We thrive on that, I thrive on that."
Bess Kennedy, Caleb’s mom, brings him and her two daughters to the house regularly.
"I feel like there are so many other areas of their life that are so structured and this is a place they can come and play and have a great time," she said, admitting she was scared when Caleb told her he went on the roof of the Lanzas' two-story home.
"I definitely had some grappling with that but I just had to get over myself," she said. "I don’t know if he goes on the roof as often but I know if he chooses to it’s going to be a safe way for him."
Change in Parenting Culture
I was doing OK with the free-range play until the roof visits made my stomach lurch with the image of kids making one dumb choice when the stakes are so high. A neighbor who didn’t want to give her name told us her kids are not allowed to play at the Lanzas.
As I evaluate a lot of the other play, I think Mike is on to something.
The kids play in the street, but cars slow down and the older kids yell at the younger kids to watch out. The kid who is sitting on a boy about to whack him with a plastic sword feints at the last minute, laughs and lets the smaller kid up.
The new kid to the group climbs up the play structure, but stops and says he doesn’t feel safe and then comes back down the way he came.
Tovah Klein, the author of "How Toddlers Thrive," sees merit in this environment where kids take chances and have the opportunity to learn self-regulation.
"I think this idea of a 'playborhood' is, yes, extreme. But what he’s countering is children don’t get a lot of opportunity to try things for themselves to take risks, to take on challenges and to decide what they want to do," she said.
That idea resonates as I watch these kids play, mostly making good choices and policing themselves. It reminds me of how we grew up; in an era of less parental intervention and more freedom.
Mike Lanza, a Stanford alumni, sees this as a change in parenting culture.
"When I was a kid, parents evaluated themselves partially on how independent their kids were, how self-reliant they were," he said. "That is completely gone from the culture of parenthood these days."
"I’m trying to make a whole human being here, not just a kid who knows how to do school work."
As I pull away from the thriving scene of kids playing outside, I resolve to give my kids more freedom, create spaces where they can try out their independence and keep them off the roof.