Why Your Neighbors’ Kids’ Schedules Are Your Business

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.

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3 Responses to Why Your Neighbors’ Kids’ Schedules Are Your Business

  1. Chuck Pletcher says:

    I remember when I was growing up, I’d call one friend and then another and another to see who was available. No adult intervention (once I was old enough to use the phone) was required (or desired). We got together and then figured out what to do.

    Luckily, there were enough kids my age within a few blocks that someone was always free to “play”.

    I don’t know when the idea of playdates came into existence. My niece and nephew are in their teens, and I don’t remember them having playdates. The whole idea of it seems a bit unnatural.

    I do like the idea of setting up neighborhood times when people commit to not planning activities for their kids so that they can all play together. It could also be a good time that the parents get together too.

  2. Mike Lanza says:

    If I walked outside my front door when I was a kid on any day after school or on any weekend day, there was better than a 50% probability that I’d find someone to do something with. For most kids in most neighborhoods today, that probability is pretty much zero. So, they never, ever walk outside “just to see what’s up.” Spontaneous outside play just doesn’t happen.

    So, unfortunately, we need to get the ball rolling by planning spontaneous play time for most kids. Sure, this goes against the whole idea of “spontaneous,” but we need to start somewhere.

  3. Interesting post … I went to a private K-12 school where I had at least a couple of unscheduled hours during each school day. When I worked in a public school, I was troubled by the realization that kids had no alone time. Recess was group time. The rest of the time, they were in class. After school, they participated in activities. I can’t imagine my own childhood without downtime, listening to music by myself, reading, getting a head start on homework in the library …