Why Kids Need Hangouts, Real-World or Virtual

photo: 4.bp.blogspot.com

Do kids have a hangout place in your neighborhood? If they don’t, they probably won’t spend much time there.

Children of decades ago who played outside in their neighborhoods frequently had places they could wander to and find other kids playing. My mother and father, raised in ethnic urban enclaves in New York and Pittsburgh in the 1930s and 40s, hung out numerous memorable evenings on their front stoops – i.e. stairs leading to their front doors, sometimes with a small landing – playing cards, playing imaginative games, or just chatting with neighbors. In addition, my father and his friends made a shack out of scrap metal and refuse from a junk yard. This shack served as their social club, a home away from home that was a magnet for neighborhood kids. That shack was part of the back alley behind my dad’s house, a larger hangout space where he and his friends shot craps, played sports, and played all sorts of other games. (See my video about his childhood play life here.)

My childhood friends and I had a few hangouts, from the tree house in the woods where we hung out all one summer to the stretch of street next to my house where we played all sorts of sports. While we built the former ourselves, the latter was just a hundred or so feet of pavement and curb on which we painted bases for our softball games. (See my video about my childhood play life here.)
In The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg writes about “informal gathering places” for adults. He calls this a person’s “Third Place” behind the first place, the home, and the second place, the workplace. Individuals show up at their Third Place frequently, but not on any schedule. They share informal, often humorous, conversations with friends and acquaintances there. The popularity of the late 20th Century TV show, Cheers, is testimony to the fact that many of us yearn for a place like this outside of home and work where “everyone knows your name.” Unfortunately, Third Places have all but disappeared from the lives of American adults.

They have disappeared from the lives of children as well. Children’s second place, their “workplace,” is their school. Similar to Third Places for adults, those for children are informal gathering places, but for younger kids, they are more for active play than sedentary conversation. Still, it’s vital to note that, starting at about age five, children want to play socially – i.e. with other kids, not alone. Increasingly, as kids get older, when they have some free time and consider what to do, they are drawn to who they can be with, rather than what they can do. Thus, what is most significant about hangouts for children is that, at certain times of day, they can just drop in there and almost always find someone else to hang out and have fun with.

Like the alley behind my dad’s house or the street next to my house, children’s hangouts don’t necessarily have to have any physical features like a swingset or seating or a roof. However, children prefer features like these and will choose places that already have them if they can. Or, they will scavenge the parts for physical facilities or build them themselves. In fact, if kids succeed in building their own hangout, they will value it more than if they did nothing to create it.

Online social networks are children’s modern replacement for real-world hangouts. Tweens flock to Club Penguin, while teens hang out at MySpace and Facebook. In “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites,” Danah Boyd explains how teens’ increased interest in online social networking is a direct result of their losing access to venues for real-world socializing. She writes, “The power that adults hold over youth . . . is the root of why teenagers are on MySpace in the first place.”(p. 134) Their behavior on these sites is quite analogous to what we adults of an older generation remember from our teenage hangout days:

. . . they hang out, jockey for social status, work through how to present themselves, and take risks that will help them to assess the boundaries of the social world. They do so because they seek access to adult society. Their participation is deeply rooted in their desire to engage publicly. . .(p. 137)

So, children of today haven’t given up on “hanging out,” they’ve just moved it from the real world to online. Now, our challenge is to find gathering places in our neighborhoods that will be more attractive than Club Penguin and MySpace.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about the kids’ hangout I’m trying to establish at my yard in Menlo Park, CA. It’s quite exciting!!!

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