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How to create neighborhoods where children are free to play

Mike Lanza, author of 'Playborhoods,' set out to make his home a neighborhood hangout for kids.

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    Leo Lanza, Marco Lanza, and Nico Lanza.
    Courtesy of Nicole Scarborough
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A common complaint of parents who want to give their kids more unsupervised playtime is that none of their neighbors do it: They might let their children walk home from school or wander the neighborhood, but without other kids around, it’s not as much fun.

That was a problem Mike Lanza ran into when he and his wife were expecting their first child and were looking to buy a house in the suburbs of San Francisco.

“I couldn’t find neighborhoods where kids were outside,” Mr. Lanza says. “Neighborhoods are way more boring than when I was a kid.”

In the end, they bought a place in Menlo Park, Calif. – making their choice based on the neighborhood rather than the house – but Lanza also set out to change things.

He decided their neighborhood needed a “hangout” spot where kids could count on finding other kids, and he let his neighbors know that his yard could be that place. To make it more attractive, he added a mural and sidewalk chalk to the driveway; a whiteboard, picnic table, and fountain in the front; and, in the back, an in-ground trampoline and playhouse.

These days, Lanza’s three sons are age 10, 7, and 5, and he says there are always kids playing in his yard, whether or not the Lanzas are home.

Lanza began researching other spots where people had managed to create a culture of play for children, and wrote a book, “Playborhood,” chronicling his findings.

One of his favorite examples is a poor neighborhood in the South Bronx, where a woman named Hetty Fox spent decades making her block welcoming for families. She built connections among the neighbors on Lyman Place and got permission from the city to make her block a summer “play street” – free of cars all summer long.

“It’s one of the most wonderful, inviting, joyous places I can imagine,” says Lanza. When he visited, he says, the street was filled with kids of all ages playing.

He was impressed with one boy, Jacob, who had just turned 2 and was riding his scooter everywhere. When Lanza asked Ms. Fox who was watching him, she told him Jacob didn’t need a parent there since he had an older cousin also out playing and 14 family members who lived on the block – and everyone out there knew him.

Building those connections among neighbors is the starting point for any effort to build a community where kids play, Lanza says. “This weird magical thing happens when you get to know your neighbors,” he says. “It becomes a safer place.”

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