Imported Playmates: Our Guest Worker Program

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.

Here's Marco and his two boy cousins roughhousing.

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.

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6 Responses to Imported Playmates: Our Guest Worker Program

  1. Perla says:

    Today one of our friends brought over two of his toddlers to our house to play with our son. Our friend apologized for coming over unannounced. We couldn’t have been more thrilled to see them and our son was absolutely delighted to have visitors. I guess what was so surprising about it was that it had been totally spontaneous. He said that they happened to be in the neighborhood and his kids wanted to play with our son. It was so novel and so delightful. Let’s stop being so “polite” and be more social and spontaneous.

  2. Beth says:

    I just discovered your blog. I have to say that here in Seattle, on a street somewhat similar to yours, we also experience very little neighborhood play. I find it as frustrating as you. I will be looking forward to brainstorming solutions as I feel I have done plenty of bemoaning the current state of over scheduled and electronically plugged-in kids.

  3. Rona Renner says:

    Dear Mike,
    Your recent posting about imported playmates reminded me of a time when I lived in Zaire (Congo) back in the 70’s. I had two young children and lived in a community where kids did play outside with their friends. Because we didn’t have a telephone, e-mail, or TV, family friends would stop by unannounced in the early evenings or on the weekends. I too was thrilled when friends stopped by, and it became a part of the community culture. It was understood that if the timing wasn’t right, one could just say hello, and suggest another time. Here in the US, I’ve also had experiences where there was an open door policy with a neighbor so the kids knew that they could knock on the door and play, unless someone was busy.
    As a child, I loved having neighborhood friends to play with, and also knowing that our parents liked each other. I suggest that the people in your neighborhood have a discussion about ways to connect more often on an informal basis. Have a few neighbors over for a game night, and bring up the subject of building community.
    Another thing we did was to trade childcare with friends. On Sundays we would have our friends kids at our house for few hours, one week, and then we would get the next weekend to spend a few hours without our kids. It was a win-win for everyone. This was a great way to have free childcare, and encourage our kids to develop a close relationship with another family. (We didn’t have relatives near by).
    Thank you for all of the work you are doing to raise important issues and help people re-think what brings them happiness. For the New Year, a good goal would be to connect more with someone in your neighborhood.
    With gratitude.

  4. Michael Tarr says:

    Mike – there is an interesting facet to how “local” attitudes are on this issue. When we bought our house in 06, we specifically chose based on talking to neighbors about the specific block – not even the larger neighborhood. Many blocks have kids, but not all of these blocks have play. For whatever reason (maybe it is no TV allowed, few scheduled activities), the kids on our block play whenever the weather is even somewhat nice. There are 4-5 families where the kids are outside a lot, the kids all play and it spans 12 year olds to my son, Ben, who is 4 now. Girls and boys. The older kids are unfailing polite and nice to the younger kids (expect to their younger siblings) and the parents understand that it is group thing – so at least one parent watches the “gang”. We have friends that live one or two blocks away and they say that although there are kids, they are rarely outside playing. I am beginning to suspect some of this is due to the no TV rule that the kids on our block share. But beyond that there are some things I have noticed that help:

    somewhat mellow parents that don’t overschedule their kids

    parents that, despite whatever income level they may have, make their kids find fun and allow the kids to be around the house (many parent overschedule the kids because they don’t want to have to watch them or entertain them, or have even the Nanny/Au Pair do it)

    no or little TV or video games (believe it or not, even the 12 year olds on our block are subject to this!)

    social interactions to foster kid interaction. Our block of 10 or so houses has annual (hosted by different families): halloween party, pumpkin carving party, christmas cocktail party, summer cocktail party, fourth of july party (we have sort of taken this on), Chanukah party, a block party, and sometimes various “open” birthday parties. So the kids and parents see each other reasonably often. I think this may be very important – try hosting a few informal parties and see what happens…

    Also, for whatever reason, visiting around here is acceptable – people that live up to 1/2 mile or so away will stop by and say hi with their kids – Ben loves it.


  5. Lauren says:

    Our neighborhood has a number of little kids, mostly boys, mostly 4 or younger. There is no front yard or street play at all. There is very little traffic on our street–except foot traffic. But is there outdoor play? No. There are behind-closed-doors and backyard exclusive playdates only. We have knocked on doors and come by, but this was never reciprocated, and we started getting the cold shoulder. I hold out only little hope that as our boys get older they will seek each other out and initiate some play themselves.

    I stayed home with my son in hopes of enjoying the SAHM lifestyle–and my strongest impression about it at this point is it’s very lonely. I also have trouble arranging playdates with other kids because of overscheduling. Trips to the park mid-week allow us to see lots of kids under 2 with their nannies, and no one else. Seems to me the only way to get play in for our preschoolers is to pay for it by sending them to private play-based preschools. Unless we want to join an exclusive country club. What is wrong with this picture?

    Beth’s comments resonate, too, and I know the best thing to do is to focus on what we can do to change things. I am glad you are stirring this pot! Think I’ll go plan a neighborhood party…

  6. Mike Lanza says:

    We’re going to make a difference on this. You can count on it.

    You can help us by continuing to come to the site and comment, by telling others to do the same, and by doing some activist “organizing” in your neighborhoods.

    Some parents now use the URL in their signatures for email and discussion groups.

    Stay tuned to in ’08 for some new interesting initiatives to solve this problem.