If you care about your kid’s neighborhood play experience, you should care about your neighbors’ kids’ schedules, and especially their availability to play outside in the neighborhood.
It may seem downright “un-American” for one neighbor to take an active interest in the way other neighbors live their lives. However, this doesn’t change the fact that if neighborhood kids are never around and available to play when your kids are, your kids’ play suffers. It is interesting to note that neighborhood play exhibits the same “network effect” that is a common feature of technology products. Just as the first telephone users benefited when more people bought telephones, neighborhood kids who want to play benefit when more other neighborhood kids play outside. See the Wikipedia entry on the network effect for more background on this phenomenon.
One important qualifier to the network effect is that the incentive to get other people to do what you do diminishes as more people do what you do. So, for instance, it was vital when telephones first emerged for telephone users to get others to use telephones, but this is no longer an issue. Similarly, Mac users care a lot more about getting others to use Macs than do Windows users care about getting others to use Windows.
Neighborhood play has followed a de-evolutionary pattern in recent decades – i.e. the reverse of successful inventions like the telephone or fax. While in the decades of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, neighborhood play was plentiful in America, today it is scarce. Thus, we parents of today took it for granted when we were kids, so we all have a tendency to do that today for our kids, but in reality we really need to work hard to make it happen today.
So, what should parents in a neighborhood do to ensure that their kids have ample opportunities to play? The solution many parents have resorted to for this problem – “playdates” – results in a very different kind of play than the kind I’m advocating. I believe that kids need some regular measure of play outside of the control of their parents.
Buzzwords for what I’m talking about include “unstructured,” “spontaneous,” and “unmediated by adults.” Playdates are obviously not unmediated by adults. Adults decide who plays and where they play, and also usually monitor what is played. I’ll write about playdates in a future post.
Instead of merely planning playdates, I’m advocating that parents in a neighborhood agree among themselves to carve out regular blocks of time where all their kids have free time and where parents promise to shut off the TVs, computers, and game consoles and tell their kids to “go outside and play.” During the school year, this could be a couple of afternoons a week after school. During the summer, this could be mornings or afternoons for a number of weeks when everyone agrees that the families and the kids will be home.
I realize that many families need some help in organizing their neighborhoods’ schedules in this way, so I’ll be working on some more specific solutions in the near future.