3 ways to create a communal outdoor play space for the kids in your community

Mike Lanza, a father of three and entrepreneur living in Silicon Valley, California, has created a community that focuses on free, unstructured, outdoor play. Among other things, he has been criticized for creating an unsafe environment.

I grew up in the “wild” ’80s in Norway where both sexes played together. Yes, we did dangerous things. One memory comes to mind where we used to sneak onto the roof of the local hockey arena (around 50 metres high). Would I let my girls do that today? Probably not, but I do let them climb challenging mountains and go cross-country skiing on Lake Ontario. My husband and I have had our share of judging looks.

Whether you agree with everything Mike Lanza has said or done, the important thing to take away from what he’s created is that it is possible to encourage outdoor play in your community. And you don’t have to live in California to enjoy the benefits of creating a more outdoor friendly community.

Here are some ideas that I have incorporated in my average metro neighbourhood in the city of Toronto.

Front Yard Family Room

Mike Lanza created a hang out place for his family in his front garden so they could connect with neighbours in the community as they walk by. His solution was to put a picnic table with storage benches in his front garden. In addition, he put up a whiteboard, media system, fountain, concrete driveway art, basketball hoop, and sandbox.

While I really found his ideas creative and fun, I took a more simple and natural approach. I already live in a community where neighbours are in touch with each other or at least occasionally sit on their front porches. We only had to add a nice front swing with a cozy sheepskin, toy box with loose toys (chalks, jump ropes, etc), and a colourful garden with edible vegetables; pleasing sights and smells for kids and neighbours to enjoy. Though it isn’t big enough to do a cartwheel, our little front garden serves us with plenty of fun in multiple seasons. Even in the winter, all the shovelled snow makes for a perfect place to build snow forts and a place to slide down on one’s bum.

Backyard playspace

My kids would love to have Mike Lanza’s backyard. It has a playhouse, swing set, slide, trampoline, and plenty of lawn to run around. All of his neighbourhood kids are allowed to use it as often they want. It is amazing he seems to be successful in enticing other kids to come and play in his backyard.

Not everyone, including my family, has such a big yard to work with.

Our solution: My husband and his father built a DIY treehouse/clubhouse out of cedar. Under the “treehouse” there is a mudpie kitchen, swing, ropes to climb, climbing wall, and a trapeze. Though our backyard is quite small, we used the same footprint as a toolshed to give our kids and their friends 7 years of play. It was the first project we tackled when we moved to this house.

Create an ice rink

Creating an ice rink was not really a Playborhood idea but it was inspired by the idea of taking charge of community change in our neighbourhood. One winter we organized parents in the area to champion and create an outdoor ice rink in a small underused park. It immediately was adopted by the community and quickly became the most successful of outdoor play solutions we have tried. We created a place where local kids (and adults) hangout during the winter time; it brought neighbours and kids together much more than our backyard play space. Today, we are happy to see it become part of the neighbourhood’s identity.

I’m grateful for all the ideas and resources Playborhood has given me over the years to create community. I think any parent that is interested in creating change in their neighbourhood would benefit from reading this book, Playborhood.

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