Every neighborhood should have at least one good playground, and every neighborhood should have at least one good pub.
Having had the opportunity to observe both of them within our block, I find myself advocating for both playgrounds and pubs because all humans need more opportunities for play and social interaction. When we consider pubs as more than bars and parks as more than playground equipment, we appreciate their real value as what urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls “third places”—those gathering spots that are neither home nor work nor school.
To be clear, I am not talking about specialty bars that are targeted to specific audiences and propped by alcohol specials. Successful pubs and taverns are less about alcohol consumption and more about conversational word play with others. Neighborhood playgrounds, accessible by walkers, focused on individual interactions and exploration, are also different from mega parks, with multiple fields primarily for organized group activities.
We all need a place in our neighborhood where everybody knows our name.
As someone who was single well into her 30s, I spent plenty of time observing life in pubs. Now, with two children and a home office in a window-filled corner, I find my attention turning to life in the small playground behind our house.
We have a big yard, with plenty of space to run around. There is even a beloved rope swing hanging from the canopy of a live oak tree, but playing in a yard is different than playing in a park. A yard comes with boundaries that require invitations to cross. Parks, like all good third places, are accessible to all who want to use them.
It can be hard to start a conversation with someone walking by a fence, but it’s easy to strike up a conversation while swinging on a swing, or waiting for the slide. A stranger in a yard could be an intruder, but a stranger in a park could be a friend. That’s precisely why one of my sons, upon spotting a potential playmate, yells to the other, “Someone is in the park, someone is in the park!” before running out the door.
Oldenburg writes about the role of regulars play in third places, and I see it out my window. When a tether ball was added to the park, it attracted older kids, including a 12-year-old neighbor. Some days she comes by herself. Some days she brings friends and newcomers.
Before long, she became known as a regular and started to model park behavior for others. Her willingness to play with kids of all ages and her approachability has set a tone for the park that is better than any list of rules or adult monitor could establish.
In much the same way that I eventually moved on from the pub, in time this tether-ball-playing, benevolent park regular will want to move onto another third place. But when regulars have established a stable, welcoming, home-like spirit, such a void can be easily filled by others who have been mentored to continue the community.
If we want adults to “play nicely,” positively contribute to a community, and interact with a variety of people at pubs and other adult gathering spots, we need good playgrounds and other child-friendly gathering spots where kids can practice these skills.