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Julia Steiny: Boring Neighborhoods Make for Boring Children

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Julia Steiny, GoLocalWorcester Education Contributor

Mike Lanza, neighborhood-revival nut, makes an excellent point. From a kid’s point of view, the choice between going outside to play with friends in most neighborhoods and plugging into the wealth of indoor electronic entertainment is a no-brainer.

If Mom pulls the plug and kicks the kids out, what’s out there? Nothing. Certainly no other kids.

As Lanza points out in his book Playborhood, “children have the Internet, lifelike video games, hundreds of television channels, dozens of new structured activities, and relentless marketing messages that draw them into malls and stores.”

Decision made. "Call of Duty" wins.

“Neighborhoods rate very low in the minds of children when compared to all other alternatives to allocate their attention and time. As a child would say, “Neighborhoods are B-O-R-I-N-G.”

So, for example, a kid can’t head out, as I could in my youth, to walk the tops of fences into the Brooks’ backyard, where kids met up in the terrific fort their dad built. We had clubhouses, treehouses, places where we could be on our own. When we rang the doorbell to ask if Katie or Maureen could come out and play, Mrs. Kelly had us wait in “our” corner of the yard behind a hedge, while the girls put their shoes on.

In a Tedx talk posted on his site, Lanza talks about how the three big categories for places in people’s lives – all people, by the way, not just kids. There’s home, and there’s work or school, and finally there’s a social world.

As any recent college graduate will tell you, making a social world on your own is tough. No longer can you roll out of a dorm bed and wade directly into a wealth of friends and potential friends. Those of us of a certain age grew up with “socials” of various kinds, block parties, regular faith-based gatherings, or family get-togethers in some pre-determined spot at a park or beach.

Well, the 3rd place for most modern kids own is online.

How scary is that?

Lanza says, “...kids today spend so much time in front of screens, inhabiting virtual worlds rather than real ones, they lack strong real-world skills like face-to-face conversation or organizing a pickup ball game.”

And, I’d like to add, resolving their own disputes – a critical skill.

Furthermore, research shows that because kids “are dealing with heightened pressures and fears from parents (see last week’s column on “stranger danger”), far more of them are experiencing serious emotional problems. The first sign, anxiety, appears on average, at the tender age of 6. Behavior disorders start, on average at 11, and mood disorders (primarily depression) start at 13. An incredible 22.2 percent of teens aged 13 to 18 suffer from mental disorders grave enough to result in ‘severe impairment and/or distress' (8.3 percent with anxiety disorders, 9.5 percent with behavior disorders, and 11.2 percent with mood disorders).”

In other words, we’re not raising resilient kids who are flexible and confident about coping with adversity.

So, with the zeal of a new convert, Lanza vowed to give his own three young boys a vibrant, kid-filled neighborhood that would balance, if not beat out the electronics. He started by transforming his front yard into a public play space and conscripting his neighbors’ help bringing the streets back to life.

Kids with access to woods, streams and nature obviously have an easier time of making a terrific 3rd place for themselves.

But Lanza is a tech entrepreneur whose home is in Mountain View, a bedroom community for Silicon Valley and Stanford University. I warn you that in the video he can be a little annoying about the ample options, time and resources he and his wife have to devote to this project.

But he also tells a terrific story of a heroic woman in Brooklyn. She worked with the city to return her dead-broke street into a place where kids could safely explore, knowing that adults, mostly herself, were watching over them.

Lanza notes that when the 1950's TV show Leave it to Beaver began, the Beave was in first grade, six years old, and walking to school on his own, with no one fussing about it. The presumption was that the kids know and trust that caring adults are close by.

I admire Lanza for thinking through the difficulties of redeeming dead neighborhoods. Playborhood is a compendium of the issues involved. The key is to pull your neighbors together so it really is a 'hood project. That involves knocking on doors of neighbor strangers to get them interested, which takes some nerve. Lanza describes a widow, living too much unto herself, who was delighted to be included as part of the collection of people whom kids know are available for help, bathroom, or drinks of water. He hardly knew who lived nearby until he started this project.

Lanza is just plain right. Turning neighborhoods into "cool places to play," as his sub-title puts it, will take heavy lifting. But without question, kids need us to fill the ‘hoods with pals to horse around with, and cool stuff to do – hide-outs, forts, clubs, and streams to dam.

Well, that or drive them to "Grand Theft Auto," cyber-bullying or that TV vegetative state. Electronics are here to stay. Balancing their appeal with a fun neighborhood is, frankly, work we all need to help with.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903. 


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