In Mike’s playborhood, kids take risks


Children jump from the playhouse roof to the trampoline in Mike Lanza’s backyard in Menlo Park, CA. Photo: Holly Andres/New York Times.

As the “anti-helicopter parent,” Mike Lanza has turned his Silicon Valley home into a not-very-safe play zone, writes Melanie Thernstrom in the New York Times Magazine. He wants his three “boys to have a normal childhood, while complaining that his idea of normal is no longer normal.”

Kids need a chance to play outdoors, their own way, Lanza believes. Neighborhood kids are welcome to play in his yard at any time — without an adult to supervise.

“His free-time-is-for-goofing-around ethos is particularly anomalous in Silicon Valley,” writes Thernstrom, whose kids were preschool classmates of Lanza’s youngest boy. The area is full of “former engineers, executives and other highly educated women who have renounced work in favor of what they call uber-parenting.”

. . . .  parents think they should be producing model kids, optimized kids, kids with extra capacity and cool features: kids who have start-ups (or at least work at one); do environmental work in the Galápagos; speak multiple languages; demonstrate a repeatable golf swing; or sing arias. To a comical extent, parents here justify the perverted ambition through appeals to research (enlarging the language center of the brain and so forth) while ignoring research on the negative effects on children of being micromanaged.

A high-tech entrepreneur, Lanza is the author of Playborhood and writes a blog on turning neighborhoods into communities where kids can play outside.

I’ve walked past the Lanza house, which is in a lovely, expensive neighborhood near Stanford. I also did some freelance editing for his wife (who is not that happy about her kids playing on the roof) years ago.

The too-safe playground

Playgrounds can be too safe, writes John Tierney in the New York Times.

Even if children do suffer fewer physical injuries — and the evidence for that is debatable — the critics say that these playgrounds may stunt emotional development, leaving children with anxieties and fears that are ultimately worse than a broken bone.

“Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground,” said Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway. “I think monkey bars and tall slides are great. As playgrounds become more and more boring, these are some of the few features that still can give children thrilling experiences with heights and high speed.”

Children sometimes get hurt, but the pain doesn’t last, studies show: “A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of height.”

The old tall jungle gyms and slides disappeared from most American playgrounds across the country in recent decades because of parental concerns, federal guidelines, new safety standards set by manufacturers and — the most frequently cited factor — fear of lawsuits.

Shorter equipment with enclosed platforms was introduced, and the old pavement was replaced with rubber, wood chips or other materials designed for softer landings. These innovations undoubtedly prevented some injuries, but some experts question their overall value.

If the playground is designed for toddlers, older children may find more dangerous pursuits.