It’s 3 p.m. Do you know where your child is?
Menlo Park father Mike Lanza doesn’t. His 12-year-old son may be at a friend’s house or in the backyard. He’s not always sure. And that is what he prefers.
Lanza has been advocating for more childhood independence through what he calls “Playborhood,” a movement to create neighborhood spaces for unstructured play. He believes more kids should play outside and roam around the neighborhood, as children did in past decades, without the constant supervision of parents.
“The fundamental thing that’s missing is children don’t have nearly as much independence as children have in the past and I think it’s hurting them in many ways,” said Lanza, a father of three boys.
Lanza has turned his two-story home into a “playborhood”— complete with a trampoline, skate ramp, zip line, play house, scooters — any child’s dream space. Neighborhood children and their parents are invited to play at any time.
The former software and tech entrepreneuer has also written a book and started a blog about Playborhood. Lanza has a Master of Education, Master of Business Administration and Bachelor of Arts degrees from Stanford University.
Living in a high-achievement region like Silicon Valley, Lanza believes children are overscheduled with extra-curricular activities and academic pursuits. Children rarely go outside and play. But that unstructured time, seemingly frivolous and carefree, Lanza argues is key to children developing autonomy and creativity.
“Parents used to think a big part of their responsibility as parents was to teach kids how to be independent and to provide them with independent skills…that for some reason, it’s incredible to me, has pretty much gone from the culture of parenting,” Lanza said. “Now parents pretty much all they care about is what grades kids get, what their test scores are, what their extracurricular accomplishments are.”
Playborhoods are his answer to helicopter parenting. Less supervision, more time to develop on their own. The idea is catching on with some of his neighbors.
“I believe more kids would be happier if they spent more time outside,” said neighbor Lela Managadze, who heard about Lanza's house on the neighborhood app Nextdoor. She allows her teenage daughter, who is home-schooled, to play at Lanza’s home.
“I just moved to a new house and I’m planning to do the same,” Managadze said.
Lanza’s parenting techniques have been the subject of controversy. The New York Times published an article about Lanza’s philosophies on play. The writer criticized Lanza for she considered gender differences in his reason for wanting kids—particularly boys—to have more unstructured play time away from “hovering” moms.
“In Mike’s worldview, boys today (his focus is on boys) are being deprived of masculine experiences by overprotective moms, who are allowed to dominate passive dads. Central to Mike’s philosophy is the importance of physical danger: of encouraging boys to take risks and play rough and tumble and get — or inflict — a scrape or two,” wrote author Melanie Thernstrom, who lives in Lanza’s neighborhood.
“Central to what he calls mom philosophy (which could just be described as contemporary parenting philosophy) is just the opposite: to play safe, play nice and not hurt other kids or yourself. Most moms are not inclined to leave their children’s safety up to chance,” Thernstrom wrote.
While the article suggests Lanza believes play needs to be more free for boys, and mothers are smothering children, he refutes the idea.
“Honestly I don’t see boys as needing more independence than girls. I don’t see boys as seeking more independence than girls, and I certainly don’t see mothers as being more restrictive than fathers. I see a lot of restrictive fathers out here.”
Instead he says he is encouraging all children to get outside and play.
“I would like to think it’s a movement to encourage parents to find ways to give their children a life of play in their neighborhoods,” Lanza said.