Book Review. Playborhood: Turn your neighborhood into a place for play

I was delighted a few months ago to receive a review copy of Mike Lanza’s recent book, Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play. Now that I’ve read, reread, and fully digested it, I am even more delighted to recommend it to parents and others who care about the happiness and health of children and the vitality of neighborhoods. It’s a great read, certainly, but why review it here, on this blog? What do play-filled neighborhoods have to do with authentic education? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Because we believe in the importance of free play here at Alt Ed Austin, and because place-based approaches to education are some of the most promising and necessary for a sustainable future, I found Playborhood to be highly relevant to the conversations that take place among parents and other educators with whom I work in the alt ed community. In fact, to make sure more of you have the opportunity to read and share this book, I’m giving away three copies! Read on to the end of this review to find out how you can win one.

Lanza begins by outlining what he calls the “free play problem.” In contrast to his own experiences growing up in the 1960s and ’70s surrounded by kids ready and willing to do stuff together—running, biking, climbing, exploring, tinkering, building things, making art, and playing games of their own invention, largely under their own direction—U.S. children today spend the majority of their “free” time isolated in their own homes, enduring ever-increasing homework loads, becoming overly dependent on electronic forms of entertainment and communication, and being driven to and from highly structured activities outside of their own immediate neighborhoods. In his view, they are missing out on opportunities to develop valuable relationships with neighbors of all ages, interact with local businesses and institutions, understand and feel part of the natural world, learn self-reliance, hone specific social skills, exercise their creativity in multiple ways, and simply have fun.

But Playborhood is not a work of nostalgia, nor is it a diatribe on what’s wrong with kids these days. It is primarily a practical, solutions-oriented book. Lanza outlines a complex web of causes and effects of the changes in children’s lives over the last several generations. He cites research and analysis by Peter Gray, Madeline Levine, Richard Louv, and other social scientists and journalists on the critical importance of free play—not just for healthy childhoods, but for fulfilling adulthoods as well. He writes that free play helps children discover their intrinsic motivation, which is “the most likely path toward a successful, happy life.” Most importantly, he shows and tells what steps we can take to encourage free play to happen in our own neighborhoods.

Making time and space for free play is not about simply limiting screen time or cutting back on structured activities and test tutoring in favor of making your kids go out and play. What if there are no playmates to be found? Lanza explains that “the neighborhood play problem is more a social problem than an aggregation of individual problems.” It thus requires that parents take bold, collective action to change neighborhood culture and priorities.

Lanza himself, the father of three young boys, has taken a fairly radical approach, converting his conventional suburban front yard into an irresistible neighborhood playground and opening his family’s back yard (which features an in-ground trampoline much safer than the more common kind) to any neighbor kid who wants to come and play (by the rules, of course, for safety and consideration of others). One of the most popular and visible play spaces he has created on his property is a giant map of his neighborhood painted on the driveway (as shown on the book cover), where kids play with toy vehicles and legos and create all sorts of games related to their own immediate surroundings.

While Lanza acknowledges that he is more fortunate than most of us to have been able to spend a considerable sum of money on his front and back yards for the benefit of his own kids and their entire (affluent) neighborhood, he devotes several chapters to showcasing other kinds of communities that have successfully created playborhoods, some of them on little to no budget. One impressive case study is that of Lyman Place in the Bronx, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States, where the irrepressible Hetty Fox presides over the Play Street she and other neighborhood activists have created every summer for more than thirty years.

Another inspiring example for me is Share-It Square in Portland, Oregon, where neighbors gradually “occupied” a neighborhood intersection in creative ways, establishing intriguing spaces and structures for kids and adults on each corner, a beautiful work of art on the pavement to mark the intersection as a special place, and regular community gatherings right in the street. One of the corners includes an informal book exchange, an early example of the “little free library” concept that has been taking hold in communities around the country, including Austin.

Lanza posts regularly on the blog that shares his book’s title (and where you can buy the book as well as Playborhood signs). Not every post is entirely in line with my own views, but it’s always thought-provoking, and I wholeheartedly endorse the book. Mike Lanza is an original and persuasive voice for the fundamental values of neighborhood, “real life,” and childhood. The playfully subversive cultural movement he has instigated is right in step with the work of Austin’s most transformative educators.

If you would like a free copy of Playborhood, you can do one or more of the following (for up to three chances to win) by 8:00 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20:

  • Leave a comment below about your own neighborhood. Do you consider it a Playborhood? Why or why not?
  • “Like” Alt Ed Austin on Facebook if you haven’t already—and while you’re at it, add us to your interests list to make sure you get all our updates.
  • Share this blog post on your Facebook timeline (there's a handy little link below).

Check back here after Wednesday night, when winners of the random drawing will be announced as an update to this post. In the meantime, go out and play!

What is place-based education?

For the second in our series of guest posts, I asked Caitlin Macklin to explain the concept of place-based education as she and her students practice it at the 9th Street Schoolhouse. Feel free to ask Caitlin questions about this topic by posting a comment below.

Place-based education is all about connecting people with the land and each other. At the 9th Street Schoolhouse, I build curriculum around the tangible resources available in our particular place, instead of reading it—abstract—in a textbook. Learning that starts with the offerings of the real world connects students and families to their environment: natural, built, and social. Those connections strengthen ties to community and result in a deep-rooted sense of who you are. That in turn allows for a sense of satisfying purpose and fulfillment in life. Place-based education is about knowing, belonging, and having a positive impact on where you grow up, so that this relationship activates an ethic of care in adulthood.

The way to make learning stick is to bring it in through the body, all five senses alive and humming. The shape of the streets, the contours of the land, the secret spots to find raccoon tracks, the smells of cold winter air tinged with cedar smoke: it all becomes so much a part of you that in adulthood you make choices to preserve community and protect land; you think about your actions rippling out to the people and spaces you love deeply. Your values trump any ambition for profit at the expense of others and limit out-of-control growth. It’s exactly that sense of place that Wendell Berry describes—the place IS you: you eat it and breathe it, and if you pay attention to it you don’t need any experts to tell you what it needs in return.

Place-based education is . . .

. . . reading a geologic map to find out where the igneous rocks are in town, heading out to Pilot’s Knob to look for the old volcano, walking on the limestone at McKinney Falls that’s imprinted with the track of the lava flow, examining granite crystals in the big boulders that fell off the train on the way to build the state capitol.

. . . catching and holding a wiggly lizard, looking at its form and function, filling a dish with water and putting it in a protected spot under a rosemary bush, out of harm’s way.

. . . walking five blocks down to Boggy Creek, playing hide-and-seek and identifying poison ivy, tossing rocks and watching them splash through algae on the surface. Taking water samples and measuring, graphing, and computing the data you collect. Using hand lenses to look at macro-invertebrates and drawing conclusions about water quality. Asking questions about where the bottles and chunks of metal, tattered cloth, and food wrappers come from, and what happens when creeks get polluted; where does the water go, and where does it come from? Organizing a trash cleanup and inviting neighborhood groups and local agencies to help. Writing letters to city officials to ask for changes in laws and calling nearby businesses to encourage them to reduce waste.

. . . getting to know your neighbors, the parents in your school community, the local business owners: Who can help fix a faucet? Who makes the best pot of beans? Who’s been to China? Who served in the Vietnam War? Who can donate scrap paper, fabric, wood?

Place-based education is teaching children to ask meaningful questions—to observe their unique surroundings—to notice the structures that circumscribe their lives. It’s helping them seek answers, creating opportunities for them to present their knowledge to real people, and applying it to community life.

Caitlin Macklin