California dad creates "Playborhood" to encourage kids to play freely

"Playborhood" for kids

A creative dad in the Bay area is pushing back against helicopter parenting. He created what he calls a “Playborhood,” a challenge to supervised play dates and scheduled activities. Kids can bounce around and take risks – and some parents don’t like it.

Within minutes of Mike Lanza and his sons arriving home from school, their backyard and driveway fill-up with kids.

“It has enough fun things that kids never get bored,” Lanza said.

The Playborhood is a place where neighborhood kids can play freely – so freely, some parents might find it alarming.

“Some element of risk is okay. I want my kids to push themselves. I want them to try things and I want them to have fun,” Lanza said. “Let’s face it, it’s no fun if there’s all this safety stuff around.”

Playborhood  CBS News

Lanza wants kids to have so much fun they’ll willingly choose this over electronic gadgets and games.

“Here you are, you’re an app developer, you’re in Silicon Valley and you’re telling kids to get off their screens and get outside?” Blackstone asked.

“I want them to have a great experience in the real world. I think that’s fundamental,” Lanza said.

Eight-year-old Colin Young begged to be dropped off at the Playborhood.

“What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this today?” Blackstone asked him.

“Trying to find ways to do something extremely dangerous at the park,” Colin said.

“Why do you like to do things that are extremely dangerous?” Blackstone asked.

“Because it’s fun,” Colin said.

The thrill of danger also keeps 7-year-old Brooke Breitenstein coming back. 

“When I jumped down, I was like, ‘Woooo!’ And then it felt like I landed on a cloud instead of getting really hurt,” she said. 

Brooke Breitenstein, 7 CBS News

Lanza, who has a masters degree in education, wrote a book about how playborhoods could become an alternative for kids increasingly overscheduled with extracurricular activities. At his house, any neighborhood parent can drop off a child to play. 

“You can imagine a parent coming into the backyard for the first time, seeing a kid on the peak of the two-story playhouse back there and freaking out,” Blackstone said.

“Yeah. They didn’t just start doing that yesterday, they’ve been working up to that for a while,” Lanza said. “They’ve learned how to do it safely.”

Some experts feel he’s on to something. Bestselling author Ashley Merryman explores cutting-edge research in child development. She’s found free-play with an element of risk teaches important life skills. 

“In fact, research has actually shown that kids who spent more time in unstructured play as children were higher in creativity as adults,” Merryman said. “You have to problem-solve. You can’t predict what’s happening.”

Ten-year-old Jack craves this type of freedom. His mom supports Lanza’s vision.

Junk playground gives saws, nails & grounds to play

“Sure, he could land wrong and break his leg on the trampoline,” Jennifer Lee said. “We’ll deal with that if that happens. … You know, I was jumping out of treehouses as a kid. I don’t think it’s unusual.”

“I think it’s important to have some faith that your kids are not crazy lunatics; that kids actually don’t want to get hurt,” Lanza said. “And yes, they may want to show off but ultimately they don’t want to have a broken bone.”

“You don’t want parents to think that their kids are crazy lunatics. Do some of them think that you’re a crazy lunatic?” Blackstone asked.

“Maybe,” Lanza said, laughing.    

Melanie Thernstrom used to let her twins visit the Playborhood but decided some activities appeared unsafe. 

“My children are naturally extremely reckless. … I’ve always seen my job as much more to shut that down,” Thernstrom said.

Thernstrom said her breaking point came when her children revealed they’d been playing on the roof, not of the playhouse but atop Lanza’s multi-story home by going through the attic. Lanza told us playing on the roof hardly ever happens.

When the Lanza’s aren’t home, kids are still welcome to use the Playborhood.

“You’re not concerned that some kid’s going to get hurt and you’re going to face a lawsuit?” Blackstone asked.

“Hey, anything can happen,” Lanza said. “The other side of the ledger is, what’s the probability that our kids are going to have a wonderful life? That they’re going to have a really fun childhood? And I’ll take those odds any day.”

Kids may love Lanza’s Playborhood, but for risk-averse parents, it requires a leap of faith.