The vast majority of kids don’t play outside in their neighborhoods. The vast majority of adults use Microsoft Windows on their computers.
Furthermore, if given a choice, most parents would like their kids to play outside in their neighborhoods. Also, about half of Windows users are not happy using Windows, while the vast majority of Mac users are happy.
In both cases, people are trapped into doing something that doesn’t make them happy.Why? I need to bring in some economic theory to explain. Both neighborhood play and operating systems exhibit a “network effect.” Thus, in both cases, one person’s satisfaction depends not only on his or her own private enjoyment of the item, but also on how many other people are also consuming it.
In the case of neighborhood play, a child’s ability to do so and enjoy it is dependent on whether other kids in the neighborhood do it. If no neighbor kids are out there, it’s pretty difficult for a kid to have fun in his or her neighborhood.
Similarly, for computer operating systems, if everyone else in your office uses Windows, and if you try to use Mac OS, your IT department won’t support you, and you’ll be shut out of many important applications that your colleagues use. Even if you’re a home user of Windows, the market share of Windows makes using Mac OS much less attractive.
This analogy is useful because those of us who advocate neighborhood play for our kids can learn from the experience of Apple fighting against Windows.
Like Mac users, while we’re happier than the other side, we know that if we can convert those on the other side to join us, we’ll be even better off. (Of course, the altruistic among us want other people’s kids to play more for their own sake, too…)
At the same time, that majority on the other side is very, very stubborn, because of their strength in numbers. Just as countless computer experts’ assessments that Mac OS is better (e.g. Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal) has made hardly any impact on Windows users, countless child development experts’ contention that children should be encouraged more to play freely in their neighborhoods (e.g. Kenneth Ginsburg of The American Academy of Pediatrics) hasn’t changed parents’ behavior, either.
Given this parallel, I’d predict that all the books and articles that directly criticize the lives of kids who don’t play will have very little effect. Telling members of the establishment – in this case, parents of kids who sit in front of screens and attend numerous structured activities rather than play outside in their neighborhoods – that they’re doing things wrong is highly unlikely to change their minds.
No persuasive strategy, even humor, is enough to turn things around. Those Mac vs. PC ads are funny for us Mac users, but I don’t believe that they change many Windows users’ minds. Similarly, the book Free-Range Kids may be a fun read for those of us who agree with it, but it’s not winning many converts.
So, what are we neighborhood play advocates to do? Well, we can learn from the recent success of Mac OS. A few years ago, astute analysts claimed that the extreme success of Apple’s iPod saved Apple’s Mac. As the dominant digital music player, the iPod legitimized the Mac in the minds of many Windows users. Now, analysts claim that the iPhone, the hottest smart phone, is pushing the Mac to even higher market share.
The lesson from Apple for us neighborhood play advocates is to find something related to neighborhood play that is innovative and that captures the excitement of all parents, but is not directly competitive with their current way of life. In other words, rather than telling them why they’re wrong, offer them something different that excites them.
This is why I’m so passionate about making my neighborhood into a vibrant attraction for my kids and neighbor kids. I’ve made some pretty radical changes to my front yard and back yard to make them into gleaming attractions for kids in my neighborhood. My next step is to host some pretty outstanding events there. I’ve already hosted a great Play Day here. This Saturday, on Halloween, we’ll host what I believe is a pretty amazing spectacle.
Certainly, I don’t have nearly all of the answers, but I strongly believe in my approach. We parents who want our kids and neighbor kids to hang out in our neighborhoods need to offer some iPod and iPhone like options right outside our doors. Otherwise, we’ll just end up whining (or laughing, if we read Free Range Kids) as our kids remain trapped in dreary childhoods.