A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Spring 2017

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NEIGHBORHOOD SUMMER CAMP

By Candace Brown

 

If you drive along Yale Road in Menlo Park, California, don't be shocked to see gang activity. That is, activity by the friendly gang of neighborhood kids happily playing outdoors. Like a scene from the 1950s, kids in this neighborhood hang out together, create their own games, build camps, form secret clubs with passwords, run, chase, wander the block, knock on doors, and know all their neighbors, young and old.

It's no accident that the culture of childhood on Mike Lanza's block harkens back to the days of Dennis the Menace. Lanza, father of three sons, ages eight, five, and three, made it happen, and he wants other parents to realize they can too. This former tech entrepreneur started and ran five internet and software companies before he decided to dedicate his life to giving American children a chance to experience childhood as it ought to be—full of independent outdoor play with a happy little gang of neighborhood pals.

 

One way Lanza made that happen was to start his own neighborhood-based summer camp, called Camp Yale, so named because he lives on Yale Road. He replaced the conventional landscaping in his own front yard with a kid-friendly, kid-attracting play space where neighborhood children can hang out. He also wrote a book called “Playborhood.” In an interview with Neighborhood Life, Lanza explained his motivations, shared his experience, and offered the advice that has inspired others and started a movement.

Candace Brown for Neighborhood Life: How did you get so involved in all this and decide to write a book?

 

Lanza: Almost nine years ago, I had my first son. From the time he was born, I started thinking a lot more deeply about the lives of children and very quickly came to the conclusion that I didn't want my kids to grow up like most kids today. I think the common childhood in America is really a bad deal for kids. I've been trying to figure out how to do it better, to get kids out in the neighborhood, independent, and not shadowed by parents and adults, not locked into their houses sitting in front of screens. So when I sold my last company, I started thinking about writing about this and innovating in the world for my kids and other kids and spreading the word. And that's how Playborhood has come about. I'm kind of an entrepreneur for kids and neighborhoods. That's what I've evolved to do.

NL: You obviously feel strongly about this. How do you see the situation for children in today's society?

Lanza: I believe that the neighborhood is fundamental to improving childhood in America. We've gotten away from thinking of children being active in neighborhoods. Because of that, kids are either spending way too much time in front of screens inside their houses or they're being driven around all over the place by their parents. And the neighborhood is this unique place where they can have some independence (see How a Kid Masters His Neighborhood) and really develop their leadership abilities, develop their social skills, and exercise. It's a unique place where they can do that and be close to their parents and close to other people they know. So it's kind of a safe oasis.

NL: Why did you decide to create a neighborhood summer camp?

Lanza: The idea of a neighborhood summer camp is really an attempt to change the culture of a neighborhood, so that year ‘round, kids will be knocking on each other's doors and playing with each other, not just during the week that we have our camp. I'm happy to say I've inspired some other great camps, some more amazing than mine in some ways, right around here in Northern California and other places.

They take somewhat different approaches. I'd say what they have in common is that they're very neighborhood based. We don't say “Hey, anybody who wants to come, come to our neighborhood summer camp.” We're interested in people who live very, very close to each other. The hope is that in that week, or two weeks, however long the camp is, relationships will form and the kids will continue to keep that spirit going throughout the year.

NL: About how many do you think is an optimum number of children to have in a neighborhood summer camp?

Lanza: It really depends on the structure of what you're building. I run mine myself, so my optimum number is somewhere between 12 and 18 kids. I think this year we're going to have 15 to 16. At Camp Yale, we don't have any teenagers around who can help me as counselors, like at Camp Iris Way—which I inspired and devoted a chapter to in my book. They are incredibly successful. Out of 75 kids between ages four and seventeen in that enclosed neighborhood, they had 72 participating, about a 95% participation rate.

NL: How does Camp Iris Way run theirs differently than how you run yours?

Lanza: I think our neighborhood camp has some advantages over theirs, but what they've done in terms of participation is unbelievable. They've created kind of a complex structure of counselors. So, why would a 17-year-old kid play with a four year old? Well, they're paid for it. And they get to put it on their resume'. They have kids from middle school through high school as counselors, at three different levels. They pay them different amounts and give them different levels of responsibility.

So these kids get roped in thinking “This is a resume builder and I'll make a little money.” But, in my mind, it's really kind of a bribe to get the older kids to come play with the younger kids. If you go there and see it, they're all playing with each other. There are no better people to play with young kids than older kids. We have this idea in this society that parents should play with kids all the time. I love playing with my kids, but there's no better playmate for a kid than an older kid. They've really got it going at Camp Iris Way.

NL: If they have that many kids, is this in a community building? Not someone's home?

Lanza: Camp Iris Way takes place on the street, Iris Way, in Palo Alto, California. The folks who run it put up barricades about 200 yards apart on the street. (Note: They contacted the city and received permission to block off part of the street.) Of course, some front yards are also used, and at least one house lets kids go in for bathroom breaks. It's one of those horseshoe streets. You have to drive in and you have to drive all around and come back out. So it's a self-contained little neighborhood.

It was started by two moms, who are still very active, but they very quickly enlisted a lot of other parents, mostly moms in their neighborhood. And they created this structure of counselors. It's a really large undertaking that really has a lot of moving parts, and they do it very, very well. I'm in conversation with somebody else to actually try to package up some of what they do and some of what we do so we can kind of provide a kit for lots of other neighborhoods to create a neighborhood summer camp.

NL: Please tell me a little more about your own camp, Camp Yale.

Lanza: We're a little more innovative than Camp Iris Way, a little more sort of cutting edge, whereas Iris Way gets an amazing amount of inclusion for their neighborhood.

We've been playing a game for the last few years called Huntopoly. Basically there's a map of the neighborhood on my driveway, and I have all the lot lines drawn out in our neighborhood. And we use that map to play a game that's a combination of monopoly and a scavenger hunt. Each team is assigned one block. Kids roll fuzzy dice and move this big monopoly piece and wherever they land they have to go to that house and get a bunch of scavenger hunt items. They have to knock on the door and talk to the neighbor, and they meet the neighbor.

This year we're adding something kind of cool to it. We're adding kind of a treasure hunt with some technology. The box has a GPS chip inside and an LED screen outside. Kids get a certain number of chances, say 20, to try to open the box. Each time they try, if they're not at the GPS location where they can open the box, the screen tells them how far away they are from that location. They'll have to kind of figure out where they can open the box and then they'll start the game there. Lots of fun, some cutting edge technology and experimenting with a new idea for a game and it's been very successful.

NL: When it comes to building a sense of community, what tangible results have you seen?

Lanza: At Camp Iris Way—and I wrote about this in the book chapter—the week is an absolute love fest for the neighborhood. It's funny but it's true. I've been there a couple of times. There are seniors who pull out a lawn chair and unfold it and sit there and watch, because they love it. They love seeing that activity. And the last day of the week, they have a block party and it's a total block love fest. They show photos and videos of the entire week. It's just a wonderful time for everybody.

From Camp Yale, here are just a couple of anecdotes. Beyond the fact that kids do get to know each other and are more likely to knock on each other's doors, we have also definitely enfranchised older folks in our neighborhood. A woman who is an empty nester lives a block away from us. In the game Huntopoly, my kids and another kid were on a team, and they were assigned to her house. They knocked on her door and got to know her. She was totally thrilled. We have this wonderful picture of her. Now we know her. Now we say hello. She had kids who grew up in our neighborhood 20 years ago. It's just wonderful getting to know her.

 

 

We have another neighbor who lives about six doors down from us. If we didn't know him from all our activities in the neighborhood, we wouldn't have known that he is a magician. He does a magic show every year at Camp Yale. The kids love him. He's wonderful.

We make connections not only with kids who participate in camp, and their parents, but we also get kids out there knocking on doors through Huntopoly and they're running out in the streets and people see them. We really do try to get the neighborhood going.

Having said all that, it's still a struggle for Camp Iris Way, as it is for me with Camp Yale, to carry on that activity in the neighborhood throughout the summer and the rest of the year. We both like to do our camps in the beginning of the summer, in June, so we can try to have an impact on the way the rest of the summer goes for our kids. We definitely feel like we make a long term impact for the whole year, but kids do start to get scheduled with camps. They start to go on vacation. So it's not nearly as much activity as it was the week of camp.

NL: What have been some frustrations and challenges?

Lanza: It is sad and disappointing that kids will sometimes knock on a door in our Huntopoly game and the resident doesn't want to be bothered. They just shoo the kids away. Or sometimes they'll answer the door and they won't be very nice. The kids are not discouraged to the extent that they don't want to play again; they'll get discouraged in that moment but they love the game. We feel that year after year we're going to keep knocking on doors and we're going to get people to loosen up a little bit and be happy that kids are running around the neighborhood and knocking on doors and wanting to meet them.

NL: Unfortunately, there's kind of a culture of fear because of horrible things we hear on the news. How do you balance that attempt to make children unafraid and outgoing and still keep them safe? What about the safety issue?

Lanza: Well I hate to be this glib about it, but I really don't think there's that much danger. On the one hand you could cite statistics and say in general the world is safer today than when most parents were kids, in general. But still there is this perception that it's unsafe. I would just say that the most important thing that you can do to change your perception of the safety of your neighborhood is to get out there. Take walks, knock on doors, have them get to know you, have them get to know your kids, and get to know their kids.

If you get to know who your neighbors are—not at a deep level, but just kind of who they are, their faces—and they get to know you, your perception is that your neighborhood is safer. So just feeling like you know the people who are at every door for a few houses around will make you feel safer letting your kids wander around on the sidewalk up and down the block. So that's one thing I tell people; get out there. We live in a beautiful place in Northern California, and we have good weather most of the year. We're out there. We like to walk and bike to the grocery store. The kids definitely bike to school every day.

NL: When it comes to running a camp, what about liability issues?

Lanza: Again, this is kind of a glib answer, but I really don't think about it too much. But let me explain my thought process. First of all, some things I do are absolutely shocking to people, things that are “scary.” But there are some things I've done with the physical facilities of our yard to make them safer. We have a trampoline in our back yard, but it is a ground-level trampoline. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, one of their recommendations to make a safer trampoline is to have an in-ground trampoline.

So we do some things to make things safer, but we also encourage kids to take chances. We have a play house right next to the trampoline, and I actually put rock climbing toe holds on that playhouse so kids can climb up there. Now my oldest and middle sons have taken to jumping off that onto the trampoline. They'll jump eight, ten feet. They'll do flips. They'll jump over bean bags, things like that.

Another thing we do is get to know all the parents who come over. It's not like we're trying to get to know them just because we want them to like us or just because we want them to not sue us, but it's a fact that people who know you are less likely to sue you than people who don't know you. You're looking them in the eye and they're bringing their kid over and at some level, they may not sign a contract, but they're accepting that this is something they want their kids to do. They're going to feel a little guilty if the thought crosses their mind that they're going to sue you.

And after all that risk litigation, there's still some risk. I do a simple calculation. I compare the probabilities. In order for someone to sue me there has to be some large accident. There have been no accidents. We've been lucky to extent. It's been four years since we've had this stuff up.

Compare that with the probability that my kids are going to have a better life. I'll take that bet every time. I'll take that less than 1% probability that some kid's going to get hurt, and some fraction of that that someone's going to sue me. I'll take that chance in order to have a much better life for my kids. There's no question in my mind that they have a much happier, much healthier life than they would if they didn't have these facilities.

NL: Learning to take some physical risks is related to taking risks in life in general.

Lanze: I'll tell you about our trampoline. I mentioned the playhouse next to it and kids jumping off of it and doing flips. Kids are out there every day, taking chances and going crazy and we haven't had any accidents, anything other than crying for two minutes. To some extend that's just luck. But I also think something else is going on. Kids, not only our kids but other kids, live with it every day, or weekly they're over there. They've learned to take risks. A lot of these kids that are having these crazy accidents are like bats out of Hell. Their parents have restricted them up, down, and sideways and then they get away from their parents' gaze and they do something wild and crazy, something stupid. And they get hurt. Our kids are doing this stuff all the time, and they're getting good at taking risks. I think that's really important.

NL: You said the parents don't sign contracts, but do you have some kind of waiver or anything at all that they sign to let their kids participate? Or is it totally casual?

Lanza: Casual. Now, Camp Iris Way has a legal waiver. They're more buttoned down. It's a choice they made versus the choice that I made, and I cannot criticize them at all. And they collect money. They charge money because they're paying counselors, so it's more like a business. No one's making money, there's no profit, but they're collecting money, paying counselors, buying some supplies. They have every parent sign a waiver, a legal waiver.

So with mine, I don't charge money. But I tend to think that because I don't charge money, because I am so informal about it, I'm probably on maybe a little more legal standing if someone would try to sue me. What I've chosen to do is do some wild, creative, and innovative stuff with a smaller group. I would say I push the edge of what people are comfortable with, in terms of legal liability, because I'm not asking someone to sign a waiver.

NL: Outside of having a one or two week camp, can you mention some other ways people can encourage neighbors getting to know each other and to get kids outside?

Lanza: A camp is just a way we can fit into the way current parent-and-childhood culture thinks about summer. When I grew up, we just went out and played with other kids. It wasn't camp. We didn't schedule it; we just did it. We're trying to fit into their terminology. We're trying to fit into their schedules—all that stuff.

So, yeah, there are lots of other ways. One other basic thing I mentioned before is when you have younger kids, you get out every day, before dinner, after dinner, and you play with your kids out front. You do it out in the front yard, because in a lot of places, we've got fences all around the backyard, so no one can see you if you're in your back yard. But people can see you if you're in your front yard, or on the sidewalk, or in the street. Knock on doors. Be out there. Just be present.

That does two very important things:

First of all, it gives the message to your kids, “This is a cool thing to do; this is an okay thing to do.” And it also makes them more comfortable with the place and the people there, and it makes other people get to know them. It makes everybody more comfortable.

And secondly, there's this concept—that I really work hard to explain and to help people with in the book, “Playborhood”—of creating one neighborhood hangout where kids can go. There's a concept sociologists came up with called “the third place.” Human beings, throughout history have had three places where they get most of their regular social life they can count on. The first place in their life is their home. The second place is their school or their workplace. But then there's always been a third place, where people can just show up and see people they know whenever they want, unannounced. They can come whenever they want and leave whenever they want.

I've completely redone my yard to change it from your average suburban yard. I converted literally every square foot to make it usable to kids. What would attract kids to come here? The objective is to make what I call a neighborhood hangout, or an outdoor family room, so the kids have a place to go when they think, I've got some free time. What do I do?

And sure enough, every day after school my kids are always out there. And very often other kids will come by as well, often with their parents. And they'll play. It's to some extent because of our relationships, but it's also to some extent because we've got really fun stuff to do there. No one wants to be inside watching TV.

 Photo courtesy of Candace Brown

NL: I have such fond memories of living in a neighborhood full of kids, all running back and forth to each other's houses all day, playing hide and seek and other games, building “camps” and putting on pretend circuses. There was a water fight in our neighborhood that became legendary.

Lanza: When I was a kid, I had a place that I showed up at, a patch of street between my house and the next door neighbor's. I went there most days after school, a lot of days in the summer, and there would almost always be someone there. It was a place I could count on. I could just go there and there would be something going on.

That's very important and something we try to create in my yard. It would a great thing for parents to try to do this in their yard, in a neighboring lot. It's got to be very close to your home, because kids don't roam.

NL: What about parks?

Lanza: They don't go to parks anymore. Most people don't live within one block of a park, and parents don't let their kids roam more than one block. It's just not where kids go. They don't do it. Kids aren't going to wander to parks alone, so parks are very sad places. You go there and you have a nanny and a kid or a parent and a kid and they're all in their own little world and kids don't really play together. So the hangouts for the kids, which I think is really vital, have to be within a block of their home. The happening place for a kid has to be right on the block where parents are comfortable letting them go to it.

 Photo courtesy of Candace Brown

NL: The whole neighborhood was our park when I was a child. I'm glad I spent so much time playing outside. I think it is essential not only for health reasons, but for nature deprivation reasons. I think all humans need to have contact with nature. Outdoors is where we were intended to be.

Lanza: Some parents, like me, want our kids to be outside playing. It was such a common thing. It was our life, being outside playing every day. That's not going to happen unless we do something to change the culture of the children in their neighborhood.

NL: So what is your most important piece of advice for anyone wanting to start a neighborhood summer camp or find other ways to get those kids outside and active?

Lanza: I can think of two steps.

One is to believe that if—and this is true for 90% of parents out there—if your kids don't have a life of neighborhood play, they're missing out. And you can do it. It can happen. It's happening. It's happening where I live. It's happening at Camp Iris Way. I've profiled probably ten other neighborhoods in the book “Playborhood.” It's happening in different ways in different places.

The next step is to say that there are different ways to get started. A neighborhood summer camp is an excellent way to get started in trying to create the foundations for neighborhood relationships for your kids.

 

RESOURCES

Order the book “Playborhood”

Blog posts

Statistics on Unsupervised Outdoor Play

American 6-12-year-old Children's Outdoor and Indoor Leisure Time 1997-2003

How a Kid Masters His Neighborhood

Articles

From Landscape to Playscape

Camp Iris Way Deals Blow to Paranoid Parenting

SLIDE SHOW: Camp Iris Way, Where Kids Roam Free

These Moms Created a Neighborhood Camp (And So Can You!)

Create a Summer Camp in Your Own Backyard

Enterprising Teens Host Neighborhood Summer Camp

Bright Ideas: Six steps to starting your own neighborhood summer camp

Summer Camp In The Neighborhood: How To Get A Collective Of Parents Together To Save A Ton Of Money On Daycare During The Summer

 

Photos, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Mike Lanza

 

 

 

 

 

 

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