Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 22, 2013

Menlo father takes child's play seriously

Bucking the norm, Mike Lanza seeks to foster neighborhoods where children play outside

by Chris Kenrick

With resources to buy a nice house in Palo Alto or Menlo Park and expecting their first child, Mike Lanza and Perla Ni beat the bushes for a single feature that was critical to them — a home on a street where kids play outside.

They would drive around neighborhoods on weekend afternoons looking for "kid debris" and knocking on doors to ask residents whether children played outside.

"It's almost impossible to find," said Lanza, a tech entrepreneur who, since that experience more than eight years ago, has made it his life's work to promote unstructured neighborhood play for kids — his own and others.

"And the real-estate industry was no help at all."

Lanza, author of "Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play," will speak Monday, Feb. 25, in an evening event at Cubberley Theatre sponsored by Friends of Preschool Family. He will discuss ways parents can promote neighborhood play and help kids develop into "active, meaningful adulthood" through playful childhoods.

"One way to characterize my life is that I'm applying entrepreneurship skills to my kids' childhood," said Lanza, who launched a series of tech startups before turning his professional attention to child's play.

Lanza grasped early in his quest for a neighborhood with street life that he was bucking the cultural norm, a norm he believes has been turned upside down since his own fondly remembered youth in Pittsburgh, Penn.

"Now, there are a lot of neighborhoods with a lot of kids, and you don't see a single kid outside," he said.

"People are doing everything they can to optimize kids' future potential: We schedule them to the max and we're happy if they do homework."

"But I don't adapt, and I said, 'I'm not going to raise my kids this way.'"

After testing different Palo Alto and Menlo Park neighborhoods through rentals from Midtown to Guinda Street to Creek Drive, Lanza and Ni purchased a house in Menlo Park — not their favorite, but one they felt had "neighborhood potential."

They've tried to foster street play by constructing an "outdoor family room" in their front yard.

"We're doing some pretty wild things with our kids, but I'm pretty sure their lives are better," he said.

The family doesn't entirely shun typical routines for their three boys, who are now 8, 5 and 3.

The oldest takes tennis after school and participates in the Young Builders workshop at Midtown.

But, Lanza said, "We're not big on organized sports, and we try to leave two or three days open for him."

Their efforts have won what they hope is the gradual acceptance of neighbors.

"There's lots of excitement from certain people — Ohlone (Elementary School) types — but for most people it's, 'We like it, but we're not going to start canceling our kids' activities so they can hang out in your yard more,'" he said.

"Others are 'living the life,' scheduling their kids like crazy. But interestingly, two of our neighbors have independently come to us and said, 'We used to not really want our kids to come to your place, but now we realize it's just a lot of fun.'"

Lanza's research has led him to a few urban and suburban pockets around the country where outdoor street play is supported and thrives. In a low-income neighborhood of the Bronx a dedicated resident for the past 37 years has created a sanctuary for play on Lyman Place, a small street, where she gets through traffic banned for the summer and kids populate the space.

He's been invited to speak next month with the mayor and department heads of Somerville, Mass., who are interested in promoting the idea.

His research on play has led Lanza to the belief that it doubles as the best path for nurturing curious and engaged adults.

He's been interviewing parents of entrepreneurs and social activists, including winners of the Thiel Fellowship, which pays selected students under 20 $100,000 over two years to drop out of college and pursue entrepreneurial, social or scientific work.

He theorizes that pressured, overscheduled childhoods create unprepared adults.

"We have an epidemic of 20-somethings who are listless, don't have direction in life and living with their parents — and a lot of them are very well-educated," he said.

"To some extent it's because of the economy, but the key statistic is that the labor-participation rate of 20-somethings is at an historic low, so they're not even trying. The statistics say there's not as much trying going on."

In his next book, tentatively titled "Raising Doers," Lanza said he will connect the dots between playful childhoods and adults who are "active, caring, solutions-oriented participants in the world."

His Feb. 25 talk, "From Players to Doers," is free and open to the community. Part of Preschool Family's "Parents Survive & Thrive" speaker series, it will be from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Cubberley Theatre, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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