Is Palo Alto a Great Place to Grow Up?

As a new father, I’m seeing the world through a different lens than I did before. I left the suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA when I came out here to Stanford and made lots of derogatory jokes about my hometown, but I always said it was a great place to grow up. Now, I’m grappling with the possibility that what is a great place for me as an adult – Palo Alto – might not be a great place to grow up.

Kids on leashes in San Francisco.  Wouldn't they have more fun in a no-name small town in the Midwest?You see, I’m trying to look through the eyes of a child, not the eyes of an adult. Sure, we’ve got great schools, but what matters more to kids – play or school? What makes them happiest? Play wins hands down. No contest.

Of course, as parents, we want our kids to get great educations, but do we care if they’re happy, right? And we do believe that good and ample play opportunities are an essential part of a childhood education. Or do we? Well, pretty much all child psychologists do, and I do, too.

Anyway, I think Palo Alto is a pretty poor place for kids’ play. Drive around one weekday afternoon or anytime on a weekend day and look for the kids playing outside. It’s dismal, B-O-R-I-N-G. In an article on the Playborhood Survey, I note that Palo Alto area kids are about 40% as likely to play unsupervised as kids outside the Bay Area.

By the way, I want to dispel the notion that a place can’t have lots of play opportunities and great schools at the same time. In comments on the Playborhood Survey, a few parents from areas outside the Bay Area – mostly the Midwest and Northeast – indicated they have both. Furthermore, if parents simply pulled back on structured activities outside of school and let their kids play more instead, they could increase play opportunities without harming their kids’ ability to do their homework and perform well in school.

So, maybe boring suburbs or boring cities are better places to grow up than exciting suburbs or exciting cities. As I ponder that one, I also ponder how much I’m willing to sacrifice for my kids’ happiness. Two of my best friends moved their families to Ohio and Michigan from the Bay Area about twelve years ago because they thought the Midwest was a better place to raise kids.

What if they’re right? My guess is I’ll stay right here anyway, but in the meantime I’ll try my damnest to find some little pocket of Palo Alto that’s better than Ohio, Michigan, or Pittsburgh. Or, maybe I’ll play a role in making that little pocket of kid heaven happen here. Trying to figure that out is what my life’s all about these days…

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