How Do You Get Kids Back Outside, Playing? One Cool Idea

Hi Readers! Here’s a story from Palo Alto Online about some neighbors who created their own “camp.” It’s run by older kids for younger kids (with parental supervision), it’s very casual, and it’s just a great way for everyone in the nabe to get to know each other, and also get used to playing outside, with each other.

It’s sort of like re-introducing a wounded bird back into the wild: A slightly artificial program by which kids are introduced back into the world of childhood. Hooray for the moms who started this and hooray for the group that inspired them, Playborhood. Its founder, Mike Lanza, also started a “family room” on his front lawn. Here’s to community! L

Iris Way, [is] a Palo Alto neighborhood located off of Embarcadero Road. It has everything a suburban family could possibly want — beautiful houses, giant trees, quiet streets and plenty of sun. Now residents have one more thing to cross off their checklists: Camp Iris Way.

Diana Nemet and Jennifer Antonow founded Camp Iris Way, which runs this week from 9 a.m. to noon, so neighborhood kids could play games, do arts and crafts and meet the other children on the block. The camp is for kids ages 4-15 and is limited to those living on Iris and one neighboring street.

Nemet and Antonow decided that they wanted to encourage the kids in their neighborhood to go outside and play after the pair of mothers read blogs on, a Menlo Park-based website.

“We decided to do it the first week of summer so that the kids could to get to know each other more and can play together for the whole summer,” Antonow said.

The two sent out e-mails and printed fliers to get other neighborhood parents involved. While Nemet and Antonow originally thought they would only attract enough kids to fill a back yard, the camp directors ended up with 44 of the approximately 60 kids living in the neighborhood. With so many parents wanting their children to participate, Nemet and Antonow had to call the City of Palo Alto to get permission to have part of the street blocked off.

“The idea was for kids to open their front door and come outside to play,” Nemet said. “We never thought it would be this big. It’s been wonderful to see how much they’re already bonding.”

The older kids are counselors and the fifth- and sixth-graders are counselors in training. The camp is broken up into four teams to make things more manageable. Each team has two counselors who run the activities for the day.

“I’m moving into this neighborhood over the summer so it’s a cool way to meet everyone,” said 14-year-old counselor Rachel Wood. “Most of the kids have seen each other in the neighborhood but didn’t know them. They became friends really fast.”

Best of all:

The neighborhood kids have already started playing together in their free time.

“Yesterday after camp my doorbell wouldn’t stop ringing,” Nemet said. “The kids from camp kept coming over asking my kids to come out and play. As far as I’m concerned, mission accomplished.”

As far as I’m concerned, too. If any of you are doing something like this — or are inspired to undertake a similar project NOW — please let us all know! We want to hear! — Lenore

32 Responses

  1. Brings a tear to my eye. There is hope after all. 🙂

  2. I just hope there isn’t some paranoid, holier than thou, “know it all” parent that will ruin this for the rest of them.

  3. Or some busy body state official who says they need to be licensed, insured and all the other BS.

  4. Fantastic idea! Any suggestions for starting group-play opportunities for kids when there aren’t many (or any) other children in the immediate neighborhood?

    The best way I’ve discovered of getting kids outside is to be an outdoor role model. The kids see me enjoying outdoor activities, so it’s normal to them. At home, that often means I’m weeding the garden or searching for bugs. The kids join in, and when they’re tired of what I’m doing, they find their own outdoor groove.

  5. That’s great! My kids seem to be the only ones in the neighborhood that go around ringing doorbells to see which friends can play. I’m so glad they don’t mind, but how I wish their friends would do likewise.

  6. What a great idea!!

  7. I’m writing a couple of articles for about this camp right now. I worked closely with these moms to help them pull this off.

    In addition, I’m running my second annual neighborhood summer camp next week. Activities include a magic lesson from a local magician, fort building on a local creek, creation of a mosaic that depicts our fort building (we’ll put that up on the fence in front of my house), and lots of *wild* free play – street hockey, trampoline, role-playing games in our playhouse, etc.

    Here’s my article from last year on lessons learned from my camp back then.

  8. great idea!!! This makes my heart feel super happy!

  9. Great idea! I especially like the fact that the camp is limited to local kids. Modern day childhoods involve so much driving around, and so much carbo footprint, that doing things locally really is a great leap forward.

  10. I live about a mile and a half from Iris Avenue. What a heartening story to hear coming from my own backyard!

  11. The conclusion of that is GREAT. That’s exactly the kind of thing that works — the way to get kids to play together outside is to get it started. On a smaller scale, a parent interested in doing this could organize a pickup football or basketball or soccer or whiffleball game the first time, and get the kids interested in playing together. I realize “organize a pickup” sounds oxymoronic, but it just might need to be jumpstarted the first or second time.

    Another simple jumpstart would be something like buying a driveway basketball goal (if your kids would enjoy it anyway) and setting it up, and then have your kids go ask a different neighbor kid to come shoot every day. If basketball is something that the neighborhood kids would enjoy, pretty soon the kids will come out like flies whenever they hear the ball bouncing.

  12. We used to do something along those lines in the common ground in our neighborhood. It was stopped when I was told we could not have an ‘organized’ activity due to insurance reasons. The kids could get together and play but it could not have the feeling of an adult driven event. BS. I got on the subdivision board to change this rule – and found I could not! Our lawyers warned the rest of the board and the subdivision of dire and expensive consequences if it was allowed to continue. Now kids in the neighborhood don’t know each other though most parents know me. 😉

  13. Way to go. I hope it sticks–and spreads.

  14. @Vince L – that is ridiculous. You should form your own sub-subdivision board, and tell the subdivision people they can only join if they plan on behaving like children.

    When I was a kid we didn’t really need them, but every couple of years the residents blocked off our street to traffic and had a block party. The city loved it, because it contributed to neighbourliness, reduced crime, etc. The adults loved it for the same reasons. The kids loved it because instead of the usual pick-up baseball/street tennis/hide-and-seek/sardines stuff we did every day, the adults had to come up with scavenger hunts, orienteering, and talent shows for us, and there were prizes.

    Great idea doing the camp on the first week of vacation, too.

  15. […] Creating “camp” on your block, oldest kids are counselors: One nifty idea to get neighborhood kids playing together […]

  16. In NYC, it’s possible – though I haven’t found out HOW to do this! – to get a one-way street blocked off during the day as a Play Street.

  17. This is awesome!

    It’s almost like a mini version of the Sudbury Valley School, where the older kids are encouraged to teach and mentor the younger kids, all year round!

  18. This is inspirational and lovely. Reminds me of an art and drama camp we had in our rural backyard years ago. Amazingly, girls 8-11 gravitated towards our giant homemade sandbox. They needed “muffin time”.

    For children age 1 and up, sandboxes are a great way to get everyone playing…for HOURS. I wrote about it here:

  19. I totally got misty!

    Reminds me of the Babysitter’s Club book where the gals put together a day camp for the neighborhood. I especially love that the older kids are responsible for the younger kids. Yay!

  20. Actually I was wondering about this: how do summer camps function these days, if everybody is so concerned about security and safety issues?

    In the first week of summer week this year, I worked in a summer camp run by the Catholic Church, and kept wondering, if a camp like this would still be possible in the States: the kids were outside all day, the counselors (who were 18) prepared a long and tricky treasure hunt — and sent of the kids in groups with no adult to supervize. They also organized some sort of treasure hunt in the late evening out in the woods — no flash lights allowed. The kids had to clean the house themselves, including the showers and the toilets, and so on.

    I liked that everybody at camp just naturally had confidence that the kids would do well.

    So long,

  21. That is a wonderful idea. I’m thinking of doing something similar next spring for my two boys. I’m going to put in a big sandpile. One that’ll require a dump truck of sand and railroad crossties. We had one in our backyard when I was a kid, and my brother and I spent countless hours back there playing together. I think it’d be great for my kids.

    I can already hear people fretting over cat poop and bugs and germs…and sticks! That could poke my kids in the eye! Oh the horror!

  22. Plywood plus bricks solves the cat (and other animal) problem in sand piles, if they’re bordered (as you’re planning to do with ties.) Just get enough pieces of plywood to cover it each night, and place a brick on top of each one so it can’t be shifted. Frankly, I don’t like the idea of cats in the sandpile either, and I’m far, far from a germophobe or clean freak myself.

  23. Oooh, how about this link?

  24. Sandbox cover:
    For the do-it-yourself homeowner, a custom top can be constructed using lengths of PVC pipe. Make a frame slightly larger than the perimeter of the box. Cut a length of hardware cloth and attach in to the pipe with wire or staples. Eliminate all sharp edges. Cover the top with canvas fabric so the wire is not exposed. If your play area is a shape other than rectangular, PVC pipe is a flexible version of PVC and can be bent into curves and circles. Using large whole hardware cloth or chicken wire is not recommended because of the danger of your pet and children becoming entangled.

    Looks like a fun project to get the kid’s help with, and a little easier than the plywood when it’s finished. I bet you could just put the PVC on 2 ends and then you could roll it up when it’s not covering the box.

  25. lol @bequirox.

  26. Inspiring! We are always outside playing with our kids, it’s a goal of mine for them to want to be outside playing more than inside watching tv, etc. When we lived in a tight neighborhood, it was sad to see many kids didn’t come out to play. I’d love to be a part of something like this!

  27. This summer I had my boys go (on a mostly daily basis), to the local Boys & Girls Club. Lots of outside activities, sports camps, field trips, etc. Most were $2-$10 ($2-4 for the sports camps and $5-$10 for the field trips). Plus the $5/year membership I pay per child.

    We cannot afford most summer camps (usually starting at over $100/week) so this worked out well for us. It was great that they were socializing with other kids, playing, and running around outside rather than complaining to me that they were bored all day.

    It was also a push for me to get them more “free range” for they both have disabilities (one developmental and one physical) and I tend to be a little over-protective with them because of it. However, coddling them won’t help them learn to be full-functioning members of society (which they both can become in spite of their “limitations”).

    We had a good summer & both kids grew up a lot!

    The Petticoat Polymath -or- Jane-of-all-trades:
    Musings on Disability, Health, Parenting, Politics, and all sorts of other stuff!

  28. Hi Lenore,

    Our neighborhood camp was so much fun last year that we’re hosting it again this year. And this year EVERY kid from our street is planning to attend. We have 69 kids (18 Counselors, 11 CITs (counselors-in-training) and 40 Campers)! Many neighbors planned their vacations around our camp. It really is quite special. You can feel the excitement brewing. It’s going to be a fun week!

    Wish us luck!

  29. […] thought you’d like an update on our neighborhood summer camp.  As you wrote about in your blog last year, we’re two moms from Palo Alto, CA who have created an old-school, […]

  30. […] let us know! L.  . Dear Free-Range Kids: I wanted to let you know that you, Mike Lanza, and the Camp Iris Way creators inspired me and a fellow mom, Karen Hoffman, to start out own neighborhood camp.  The […]

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