Many decades ago, neighborhoods were bustling with life. They were also bustling with children playing in groups, with no adults supervising them. Today, most neighborhoods are dead boring, and it's difficult, if not impossible, to find children playing in them.
All this is no mere coincidence. Children have always been the most prominent people in neighborhoods. In fact, in many ways, children have always acted as the catalysts for neighborhood life. In my childhood neighborhood in the Pittsburgh suburbs back in the 1960s and 70s, my activities with friends were constantly pulling my parents and my friends' parents together. They'd call each other to discuss one kid eating or sleeping at another's house, and then they'd end up chatting about other things.
My mother's childhood neighborhood in the Bronx in the 1930s and 40s was even more dominated by children because it was largely composed of immigrants from different countries. Adults with different mother tongues could barely communicate with each other, so children pulled the neighborhood together to make it a cohesive community.
Neighborhoods are suffering these days largely because children are absent. Instead of playing in their neighborhoods, they're either staring at screens (eight hours a day, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study!), doing lots of homework, or attending numerous adult-led activities outside their neighborhoods.
How are the children faring with these differently structured lives?
They're suffering, too, perhaps even worse. Pretty much every pediatrician and child psychologist will tell you that children need to play outside, every day. Without frequent outdoor play, children have been getting fatter, sadder, and less socially adept, and all that homework isn't making them any smarter.
Children's immediate neighborhoods—right on their block, outside their front door—are the ideal places for them to play outside. These are the safest, most comfortable places for children outside their homes because they can stay within earshot of their parents, and they can also get to know dozens of neighbors.
So, neighborhoods need children, and children need neighborhoods. Can we bring children back to neighborhoods again?
Absolutely! I've done it, and I've found many other neighborhoods throughout the United States that have done it. I've written about all these in my book Playborhood. These neighborhoods are different in many ways, but they share a few important things. First, they all have an outdoor hangout place—like an outdoor version of the Cheers bar—where residents frequently congregate to play and socialize. Second, most of their neighbors have voluntarily chosen to invest time and emotional energy into each other, and into the place where they live. They take frequent neighborhood walks, chat with each other, and participate in local events. Third, while many neighbors participate in neighborhood life, they all have one neighbor who has stepped forward more than others to bring their neighborhood together. Cultural change is practically impossible without leadership.
Lastly, while all these neighborhoods are play meccas for children, they work well for everyone living there: children, parents, and adults with no children. In most of these examples, children are the most visible, active residents, and they have a positive impact on everyone.
Hang out with your neighbors on the last Saturday of April (a day we're calling "Neighborday"). Click here to say you'll Do It, and here to download GOOD's Neighborday Toolkit and a bunch of other fun stuff.