Do your kids play outside with other neighborhood kids for at least an hour a week? Do they decide for themselves what, where, and with whom to play? Do they sometimes create their own games and rules? Do they settle their disputes with friends without adult help?
If your answer to these questions is “yes,” then you don’t need to read this. Your children are already getting the benefits that come from neighborhood play. But, if you’re like most American parents, whether you live in the suburbs, the city, or the country, your answer is probably “no.” Your kids are not getting the pleasure and growth that comes with outdoor social play. They’re missing out and you might want to try get your children playing outside with other kids.
Establishing a neighborhood culture of play takes serious time and effort. It may take awhile before you can enjoy the shrieks of joy coming from kids playing spontaneously outside your windows. However, there are two specific actions you can take to jumpstart the effort.
Step 1: Create a play area in front of your house
Most families create play areas in their backyards. You can buck the trend by creating a play area in front of your house.
If you live in the suburbs and you have a front yard, you’re in luck. Your task is to create an area in your yard that screams “play here!” to kids of a variety of ages. Talk with your child to figure out what’s needed. A swing? Sandbox? Basketball hoop? Street hockey equipment? Picnic table? You’ll probably want a container to store things like balls, bats, mitts, sidewalk chalk, scooters, and anything else your kids can think of.
Your backyard won’t work unless there is no fence around it and it’s easily accessible to other kids. The play space needs to be in the front so that you’re loudly advertising to other kids and parents the neighborhood: come play here!
If you’re in the city, you’ll need to get a little more creative. If you have a park nearby, and your kids are of a certain age, that can work great. If all you have is the sidewalk in front of your house or apartment, how about a bench that you pull out that has a place to store some balls, scooters, sidewalk chalk, and more? When I was a kid, I played hours and hours of foursquare with neighborhood kids on the sidewalk out in front of my house. All you need is a bouncy red ball for that!
If you’re out in the country, well, you’ve got plenty of space for play, but the question is: are there other families nearby? Hopefully you’ve got some kids who are close enough to walk to each others’ houses.
Step 2: Jumpstart neighborhood social connections
Work with your child and neighbors you already know to identify neighbors with kids similar in age to your kids, and invite them to play. To break the ice, you may want to invite parents and children together to join you and your child for outdoor play. The idea is to bring adults and children together to build trust, so that, over time, children can get comfortable with each other and decide to get together on their own.
You can call people if you have their number, or knock on doors if you’re feeling brave. People might not answer the door at first — they’re probably not used to this kind of outreach — but they might answer the second or third time. You’ve got to be brave and persistent to get children playing outside together.
After you get to know several other families with kids, you can work out a schedule for getting your kids playing outside together, ideally at least weekly. Parents need to participate only for as long as it takes for children to develop familiarity and routines. With time, the kids themselves will begin to manage their own playdates. They’ll decide what and where to play, and if things are going really well, they’ll be creating their own games and rules, in addition to playing established games.