Putting the Fun Back Into Summer

Putting the Fun Back Into Summer

Many of us have fond memories of summers spent outdoors, catching bugs and salamanders, building tree forts or riding our bikes all over town. Today many kids are scheduled to the teeth with summer camps and team sports, but some parents have made it their mission to bring back those long, indolent days of fun and discovery.

Among them is father Mike Lanza of Menlo Park, California. Noticing that kids in his neighborhood rarely played outside, he created a year-round “playborhood” in his front yard that was open to all the neighborhood kids as well as his own and featured a picnic table, Legos, a basketball hoop, and all sorts of old toys to play with.

Lanza and his family had regular picnics in the front yard so they could get to know the neighbors walking by. Kids were attracted to the yard, but Lanza soon learned something astonishing: They didn’t really know how to play. He organized an informal camp to teach them some basics, and eventually the yard was filled with kids busily involved in their own games.

As Lanza recounts in his book Playborhood: Turning Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play, his front yard eventually had an enthusiastic following.  Some neighbors objected to parties in which kids found a way to the two-story Lanza house’s roof, something that many parents would frown on. But Lanza’s ideas about play changed the neighborhood from a place with deserted streets to a more vibrant, lively place. Recalling children’s parties full of running feet and laughter, he writes that “all the kid who play here, mine included, reach a level of sheet joy that I rarely witness outside of our yard.”

The joy of play may be particularly helpful in reducing stress in kids who’ve suffered abuse, neglect or other Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Here are some tips for summer fun:

Try creating a mini-playborhood at your house. Put out toys for imaginative play – chalk, a dress-up box, puppets, and bubble kits — in your front or back yard. If you feel better keeping an eye on things, invite a friend over to hang out with while the kids play nearby.

Let children take the lead if you join in. “One of the biggest mistakes adults make when trying to play with kids is trying too hard,” writes Diane Stopyra in “A Befuddled Adult’s Guide to Playing With Little Kids.” She quotes Michael Follett of the international Outdoor Play and Learning Association (OPAL), who urges adult not to try to take on the role of director. “The best thing we can do is look and listen while at the child’s level, and wait for an invitation into their world,” Follett says.

Teach some traditional games. With screens exerting such a powerful pull, fewer and fewer children know jump rope chants or know how to ply capture the flag, four square or even freeze tag.

Have a barbeque or picnic at a state park. Invite another family and bring alone some balls, frisbees, jump ropes and a deck of cards. Nature is ideal for unstructured play, so if the kids prefer to climb trees, explore a stream, or make a make-shift fort, so much the better.

Take the kids to the beach or local swimming pool. Not even a kid normally glued to a screen can resist the water. Just be sure they’re wearing a life jacket if they’re swimming or using floaties in a lake or ocean.

Find a tranquil space. If your neighborhood is unsafe to play in, pack some sandwiches and take the kids on a picnic in a park where they can run around freely. Blowing bubbles and watching the kids chase them is gratifying, and there’s an added benefit: It can help stressed-out kids relax. Older kids may prefer making giant bubbles with a rope or wire twisted into a large bubble wand — you can make your own mix with a half gallon of water and 2 cups of dish soap, 2 tablespoons of corn starch, 2 tablespoons of baking powder, and for really long-lasting bubbles, 4 tablespoons of glycerin. When it comes to fun, who needs store-bought bubbles?


Lanza, Mike.Playborhood: Turning Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play. Reviewed in Children Youth, and Environments and The American Journal of Play (2012).

Sopyra, Diane. “A Befuddled Adult’s Guide to Playing with Little Kids.” Medium.