My family and I live in a “nice neighborhood” in Palo Alto, CA. Some kids live around here, including 1) two early elementary school-aged kids next door, 2) a sixth grader a couple doors down from there, and 3) three toddler boys across the street.
Our 3-1/2 year old son Marco and I frequently play in our front yard and along the sidewalk, but it’s quite lonely out there. We never see 1) because they have a big fence and either stay behind it or drive away, we hardly see 2) even though his parents are good friends of ours because he’s super-busy with football, basketball, and sleepovers, and members of 3)’s house have only answered the door once out of at least six times we’ve gone over and knocked on the door.
My wife and I have resorted to importing Marco’s five cousins here from Pittsburgh, PA twice in the past few months so he can have playmates around. They were just here over Christmas.Boyyyy, it’s amazing how much fun lots of kids can have when they hang out together! Marco’s cousins, ranging from 9 to 22, have an absolute ball with him every time they’re here. It doesn’t matter at all that they’re so far apart in age. They constantly come up with fun things to do together. They chase, pile on each other, squirt water guns, play bouncy-ball games, play baseball, play hockey, etc.
This is pretty much the only way Marco has real fun play with other kids. Sure, we do playdates with other families, but the kids don’t really let their hair down the way Marco and his cousins do.
That’s because real fun play, or “unstructured play,” is most likely to happen when adults are comfortable letting their kids play without scrutiny. That is most likely to occur at one of the kid’s houses, or in a neighborhood around the kids’ houses.
So, when school’s in session for Marco’s cousins in Pittsburgh, we’re stuck here in our “nice neighborhood” without opportunities for him to play, even though kids just like his cousins live right here.