And, due to changes in our society -- technology addiction, over-scheduled childhoods, and decreased participation in community activities, to name a few -- many adults feel like they don't have many friends in their neighborhood. In fact, one in four of us say we have "no close friends to talk to."
There's a simple way to address both of these issues.
Backyards are a fantastic place for this -- and, because they offer the feeling of safety and privacy, they are where most family recreation takes place.
But you know what's what might be even better? A family- (and community-) friendly front yard.
One of the top reasons kids "don't play outside anymore"... is because outside is lonely. There aren't a ton of other kids playing outside in most neighborhoods -- due to the fact that kids are glued to their electronics and parents have irrational fears of kidnapping (when, in fact, playing outside is safer than ever) and freak accidents (you could do nothing but drive 24 hours per day, and it would take 250 years to die in a car accident -- and driving your child to and from school is one of the most dangerous things you can possibly do to them).
But! If you make one small shift -- move your BBQ or playtime to the front yard -- you could have a big impact on your life, your child's life, and your entire neighborhood.
When you spend time in the front yard, your neighbors will see. You're implicitly inviting them to join in. A family that's out walking their dog or riding bikes might stop by to say hi. The kids from across the street might come over to play. Spending just fifteen minutes per week having an unplanned interaction with your neighbor could transform a near-stranger into a close friend -- for you or your child.
1. Proximity. You meet this condition by living in the same neighborhood.
2. Repeated, unplanned interactions. You meet this condition by regularly spending leisure time in the front yard.
3. Interacting in a setting that allows you to be natural (even vulnerable) with one another. Kids are masters of this -- they wear their hearts on their sleeves and don't make a huge effort to hide what they're feeling. (See also: Kids make friends WAY more easily than you. Here's why.) Adults have a harder time with this. Partly because we get self-conscious about our feelings, and partly because our friends are increasingly our co-workers. How much can you really confide in someone you're competing with for a promotion? How much can you really talk about work problems?
Playing in the front yard is a great way to meet all three of these requirements, and begin building a social network in your neighborhood.
But there are other things you can do to take this a step further and really get the social outdoor play happening in your neighborhood. For example:
1. Coordinate with other families in your neighborhood.
Pick a night of the week when everyone is encouraged to play in the front yard for an hour. This makes play more social, encouraging children to get more involved.
2. Organize a progressive.
You can re-live your college glory days by holding a "progressive." Each family serves a dish and/or game. Everyone starts in one front yard, and then "progresses" to the next one, for another round of games and/or food.
This removes the stress of hosting a whole meal at your house and spreads out the fun for everyone.
3. Make investments in your front, rather than back, yard.
If you've got some money saved up, and you want to do something to spark joy in your home, invest in a great front yard. For example, install opportunities for outdoor play, like sandboxes, race tracks, whiteboards, fairy gardens or water tables.
Have extra seats available so others can join you! Maybe something like this canopy hammock/bench ($199.95):
Every neighborhood is different. Think about what you need to do to make front yard play safe.
For example, Mike Lanza, author of Playborhood: Make Your Neighborhood a Place for Play, designed safety signs ($9.95) to slow traffic on his street:
6. Get expert advice - read Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play.
Mike Lanza literally wrote the book on creating play spaces in your neighborhood. His book is full of interesting examples and exciting ideas that are way more inspiring than anything you'll see on Pinterest. When it comes to play and parenting, we could all learn something from Lanza.
Does it take a little effort? Yes. Does it take money? Possibly -- you could build your own water table out of 2x4s and PVC pipes, though. And I would say it is absolutely worth the cost. After all, money can buy happiness -- if you know how to spend it.