July 06, 2010 Mike Lanza

Streets are for kids, too!

Today we’re excited to welcome guest blogger Mike Lanza, Founder and Chief Play Officer of Playborhood.com. Following up on our recent post on Play Streets, Mike reminisces about the tactics he and his childhood friends used to stand up to cars and claim streets for themselves. Take it away, Mike!

"Car! Car! C-A-R! Stick your head in a jelly jar!"

"Hey! Whattya think? This is a road?"

When I was a kid, we used to chant these sayings at cars when they drove through our sports field, which also served as a road for cars. When a car would first appear, someone would yell "CAR!", but all of us didn’t always run off the road quickly. The older among us would often stand there and glare at the car for a few seconds before walking off, as if to say, "OK, I’ll let you pass through my sports field."

One day, we set up a series of chairs with hockey sticks lying across them and a sign saying, "Toll, 25 cents." Most cars didn’t pay, but a few did. Nonetheless, they all stopped. In retrospect, the money didn’t matter much. It just felt good to stop all those cars.

That stretch of Orchard Spring Road between my house and the Weisses was our hangout. It was absolutely our play space. We spray painted bases on the pavement for our softball games. I remember the spot on the curb where I fell on my face and got a black eye playing two-hand-tab football. Even though it was cut down decades ago, I can still clearly see the Granny Smith apple tree in my yard, next to the street, where we had many refreshment breaks.

Kids today hardly ever think of the street outside their house as their play space. Often, when they do, it’s because the street has been temporarily closed to car traffic. I’m currently working with two "play streets" in New York City where this is happening during the summer (here and here), and I recently helped out at a neighborhood summer camp in Palo Alto, Calif. at which the street was closed for a week.

These places are magical for kids when the street is closed. Kids and adults spread out and engage in all sorts of spontaneous activities without worry. Kids have a wonderful time right outside their front door. For example, one kid at the camp in Palo Alto declined a trip to Yosemite National Park, one of the most revered national parks in America, because she didn’t want to miss even one day on her block.

Unfortunately, these arrangements are temporary, and when the streets open to cars again, children retreat inside their houses or to their backyards.

I wonder, what would it take to get these kids to “stand up” to the cars and claim the street for themselves the way my friends and I did decades ago? I’d love to make this happen. Fundamentally, I think that the drivers who frequently drive on a block and the kids who live on it need to be forced to reorient their thinking about the street. Last fall, every night after dinner for a few weeks, I played with my sons on the street in front of my house. I really think I got the neighbors who drive here to slow down and look out for kids.

This summer, I plan to do a lot more of this with two big barricades -- two hockey goals. The few times I’ve done this with one goal, I’ve noticed that cars get a bit irritated because it takes a few extra seconds for us to move the goal to the side. Two goals would cause even more annoyance.

That’s good, in my book. Perhaps these drivers will take an alternate route the next time. I want to help my boys claim the street in front of our house the way my friends and I did decade ago.


play street, guest blog, playborhood