Not long ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature about a tech entrepreneur’s efforts to give his sons the adventurous childhood he felt they needed. It’s a fun piece written by a sometimes-reluctant but participating neighbor, who isn’t quite sure what to make of Mike Lanza’s influence on the kids of their Menlo Park community. She’s a mom. He’s a dad. They don’t assess risk quite the same way—particularly the risk of Lanza’s yard, which he has turned into an enormous, extravagant playground for kids, complete with a “twenty-four-foot-long play river,” museum quality art installations, and “a two-story log-cabin playhouse with a sleeping loft, whiteboard walls inside for coloring and really good speakers.”
In the feature, Lanza wants the writer, Melanie Thernstrom, to leave her kids alone, to come inside and have a glass of wine with the other parents while the kids play in this ludicrously well-equipped yard. As the friend (and San Francisco Bay area resident) who pointed the piece out to me put it, “It’s the most Silicon Valley response possible to the most Silicon Valley problem ever.”
My mother was not as reluctant as Thernstrom to stay indoors while the kids went out to play—or if she was she didn’t need prompting to decide it was going to be alright, and for that I’m very grateful. When I was in middle school, she even let me and the neighbor boy play unsupervised in the yard with our BB guns. It wasn’t irresponsible. She knew we both could shoot. She knew we both understood the dangers and the rules created to minimize them. Risk leads to lessons learned. Billy and I practiced our marksmanship every day that summer.
I had a variable-pressure pump-action air rifle, and he had a Daisy or a Red Rider, one of those cowboy carbine-looking BB guns, and we spent the summer in the sun shooting everything from rows of little green soldiers to soda cans. If you put water in the cans they bleed, and toy soldiers become plastic reminders of the physical cost of war after an afternoon of target practice—limbs and chunks of torso and head obliterated. We advanced to shooting medicine cups, the kind that come with cough syrup, at fifteen yards. We were good—too good; and as the summer drew to a close, we had reached the point of boredom with our guns.
Boredom led to flexible interpretations of the rules. I wanted something that would be a challenge to shoot, and knew just the right target: a paper airplane. We knew gun safety: barrels should be aimed at the earth if not the target ; observers must remain behind the firing line, etc. We knew the rules; we just chose to ignore them.
We didn’t shoot anyone . My mother probably thought we had when my younger brother and sister rushed into the house wailing that something had gone wrong. They’d been too upset to make anything clear. She assumed either that I had shot the neighbor or Billy had shot me. No, thank God.
I did, however, shoot our family’s minivan, shattering the back window. It hung suspended for a moment covered in cracks before falling into thousands of little shattered pieces. I’d like to think I hadn’t shot it directly—that I’d been aware of safety and propriety enough to let the paper airplane swoop around me with my finger off the trigger as I spun to track it, and that my BB had bounced off something. Probably not. Regardless, I shot my momma’s car.
I learned lessons about safety, about the financial cost of fixing a broken window, about the bonds of friendships when you get in trouble together. So I’m appreciative of what Lanza is attempting to do in his quest to create a “playborhood.” He hopes his sons and their friends will have the freedom to learn how to assess risk and be social animals, to make mistakes and learn from them. They don’t need chaperoned lives of adult-organized activities; they need time and space to be kids.
I think, however, that he mistakes lavish playgrounds for what kids really need: unstructured, unsupervised play. Worried that he’ll never summon enough neighborhood kids for his boys to play with, he’s turned his property into an enormous and extravagant playground—and that’s a very different message.
We had a play structure: one with a little rock wall, a slide, a tire swing, and swing set. And we did use it. But we also built a treehouse out of an old wooden fence, an activity that led to a friend stepping on a rusty nail and learning all about the importance of tetanus shots; I once fell off a rope ladder onto my tailbone and could hardly sit for weeks.
Most of our play took place in our unprepossessing yard. We were safe; mom was inside, a couple earnest shrieks of fear or pain away, and we felt free to create our own games and activities, and to take risks. You don’t need to turn your yard into a million-dollar playground to give your kids this gift. If my childhood is any indication, while toys help—and my well-loved air rifle and far-smaller-than-Lanza’s trampoline suggest that they do—the key is just leaving kids alone to explore, to get bored, and to learn a few things the hard way—in other words, to play.