A Great Neighborhood Life for Your Kids? It’s a Lot of Work, and It Begins When Kids Are Toddlers

Decades ago, all parents had to do was say, “Go outside and play” to get their kids to play in their neighborhoods.

Today, on the other hand, parents who don’t take a lot of effort to make this happen when their kids are toddlers are likely to be driving their school-aged kids around to activity after activity for years.

Why do we need to make a concerted effort to engage our kids in our neighborhoods when our kids are toddlers? Once kids start getting addicted to screens (television, videogames, and computers) and start participating in lots of structured activities, it becomes very difficult to get them engaged in their neighborhoods.

My wife and I have been working very hard on this with our oldest son Marco, who’s four now, and our one-year-old, Nico. Here’s what we’ve been doing to try to ensure that they have a fun-filled childhood in our neighborhood.
Buy a house where lots of other preschoolers live and cars don’t zoom by: This year, we moved into a house that is surrounded by 12 preschoolers in a two-house radius and is on a street with very little traffic. The “raw materials” we have at this new house create fabulous conditions for neighborhood play, but even here, it still takes some work. Every one or two weeks, one street play event including kids and parents spontaneously comes together. This is great, but it needs to be a lot more frequent to become a fixture that kids around here can count on.

Keep screens (television, computer, and videogames) off until the kids go to bed: We’re radicals about this. We believe that our kids will be better off if they never even consider the option of sitting in front of a screen. So, we never watch a television or use a computer in their presence. When Marco needs to think of something to do, say, after coming home from school or after dinner, playing is pretty much his only desirable alternative. So, he plays an awful lot. If you can’t eliminate screens completely from your kids’ lives, please try to limit them. For most kids in America, screens soak up pretty much all the “free time” they have.

Take the kids outside in the neighborhood every day: After dinner pretty much every weekday evening, and during each weekend day, we go out and do something in the neighborhood. Some days, Marco and I ride bikes or play street hockey while my wife and Nico walk on the sidewalk. Other days, we all stroll to neighbors’ houses and knock on doors. It can even be as simple as hanging out in the front yard as neighbors go by so we can wave and, we hope, chat. We do this practically every evening, as a habit, regardless of whether there is something in particular to do or not. Now, we’re even doing these things in the dark, now that the sun is going down early, aided by headlamps we wear.

The crucial point is that this is a habit. It’s what we do when we don’t have something in particular to do. Kids’ habits form early in their lives – that’s why television advertising executives are so much more interested in young audience than old audience. So, it’s very important to my wife and I that our kids’ first habit for spending free time is going outside to play in the neighborhood. What do you do at home after dinner when you don’t have anything in particular to do? You probably flip on the TV or your computer, but think how much better for your kids it would be if your first impulse was to bring them outside into the neighborhood. I discuss these tactics further in this previous article.

Make our front and back yards into attractions for kids and parents in the neighborhood: One very important and overlooked reason why neighborhoods have been losing out to screens (television, videogames, and computers) and structured activities is that neighborhoods have gotten no more interesting over the past few decades, while screens and structured activities have become far more interesting. If you think about it for a moment, it’s difficult to blame kids for spending far less time playing in neighborhoods that have no more interesting attractions (e.g. play structures) today than they did decades ago when television now has hundreds of channels, videogames are so lifelike, the entire world of the Internet has evolved to become a vast global social medium, and structured activities far more sophisticated and numerous than ever are being offered.

So, we’re renovating our front yard and back yard to make them into interesting attractions for kids and parents. In other words, we want our front and back yards to be far more alluring than every front and back yard we’ve ever seen. If we can do that, then maybe, just maybe, some kids in our neighborhood will come by our yards frequently to hang out with our kids, creating a “Third Place” as described by Ray Oldenburg in his landmark book, The Great Good Place. Because few if any parents even try to make theirs into neighborhood attractions, I don’t think we’re setting an overly high bar for ourselves.

I’ve written a bit about our front yard renovation here. There’s a lot more to say, but I’m waiting to unveil what we’re doing until construction is underway after the first of next year. I’ll just say for now that it’s very exciting.

Regarding our back yard, we’re planning to build a large and elaborate playhouse that will double as a play structure. I’ll write more about this in a future entry as the plans firm up, but I’ll say here that this is very exciting, too!

Many more concrete examples of what can be done with front yards to make them attractions come from my article on front yard innovations in Portland, Oregon.

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