The Downside of Outdoor Play in Your Neighborhood (And How to Get Past It)

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Kids Playing Outdoors via The Risky Kids

Nothing makes me happier than looking out my front windows and seeing our yard and the cul-de-sac in front of our home full of kids.  We are lucky to have 11 kids just on our little street, and several more just a house or two away from our block that sometimes wander over to play as well.

For the most part, it makes a parent’s life much easier.  Once you get them started and provide a few raw materials, the kids take over and can play for hours at a time.  We’ve spent many summer evenings coaxing kids in way past their bedtime,  simply because it’s nearly impossible to drag them away from the outside fun.  This is exactly why we moved here, and why I’m on a mission to continually transform our neighborhood into a Playborhood.

However there are tradeoffs to having multitudes of kids playing in and on your property.

I don’t bring up the subject to deter anybody from encouraging group outdoor play.  That is absolutely my last intention!  There can be somewhat of a bucolic view of outdoor play, though.  Everyone’s happy, the kids all get along, we sing kum-ba-ya every night before we close our doors.  That is not realistic, though.  I would hate for anyone to get discouraged and think that encouraging outdoor play amongst neighbors – especially in their own yards – is not for them.

Here are a few of the downsides I’ve encountered while encouraging outdoor play in my neighborhood:

Your yard will get messy.

In Mike Lanza’s book, Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play (which I cannot recommend enough!), he talks about knowing which neighborhoods have good potential for play by looking for “kid debris.”  These are things like bikes on the sidewalk, toys scattered about, strollers parked on porches, etc.  Well, if kid debris is a good indicator, then we’re off the charts.  At the end of the day I often feel as if our neighbors without young children must feel as if the Clampetts have moved in.

My attitude on this changes depending on my mood and the heat index.  Some days I’m simply grateful that my kids are blessed enough to have a place and friends with which to make this merry mess.  Other days I’m grumpy about it.  But that’s pretty much how I feel about any kind of tidying up in general, whether it be in the house or in the front yard.  If it’s unusually messy, such as the time period when our front walk was water balloon central for several days in a row, I have no problem bribing asking all the kids to help.  I buy cheap popsicles from Aldi and stash them in my outside freezer for just this purpose.  Everyone who helps gets a popsicle when they’re done!  Works every time.

Things will get broken.

If you have a garage full of toys that aren’t dented, dinged, missing pieces or flat-out broken, you’re probably not doing it right.  Kids play hard and things will get broken.  Try to remember the big wheel of toy karma.  Chances are good your kid has destroyed something that belongs to someone else at some point in their life.  In the meantime, simply roll with it and try not to buy anything really nice.

Your water and electric bill will go up.

This doesn’t bother me as much as it does my husband.  We don’t have a screen door on our front door, so it’s constantly being opened and shut as kids come and go and ask their myriad of questions.  Nothing turns us into our parents as fast as a door being left open. In or out!  Were you born in a barn?  Shut the door! 

And if you let the kids play with water at all, you may feel your anxiety rising as you realize the hose has been running for an hour.  Try to remember it’s a short season for playing with the hose (at least it is in Indiana).  We have a 30 minute rule at our house.  I will not bark about the water for 30 minutes.  After that, it’s time to give it a break and move on to another activity … or someone else’s hose!

Kids will argue.

I’m good at letting this one go, but I know that many other parents struggle with the bickering that can occur amongst groups of kids.  If you can leave them outside unsupervised during these squabbles, even for a few minutes, find any excuse to remove yourself and step away.  These conflicts are exactly what kids need to work through themselves.  We learned our best conflict resolution skills as kids on the playground.  We do them no favors by trying to solve the squabbles for them.  In the end, they learn nothing and we end up annoyed.

We have a wide age range of kids that play together (from teenagers to preschoolers), and I’ve found this to be extremely helpful in conflict resolution.  It’s really cool to see the older kids model it for the younger ones, as well as to see them help the younger ones work things out for themselves.

There will be blood, sweat and tears.

At some point, if the kids are playing outdoors frequently, there will be some kind of accident.  Most of the time it’s nothing more than a skinned knee or an injured ego.  Be prepared, however, that it could be something requiring medical attention.  Please don’t let that scare you from letting kids play in your yard.  If it makes you nervous, go ahead and have a “what if” conversation with your neighbors.  If you get the sense that any of the other parents are the kind that will freak the freak out if their kid comes home with a broken arm, then (sadly) you may want to limit play with that kid.  Or at least save the slackline for a day when he’s not home.

Sometimes you have to be the camp counselor.

The worst conflicts will need a mediator at times.  Other times you’ll need to pass out snacks or drinks.  Games will stall or boredom will set in and you’ll have to encourage them to move onto something else.  Don’t fret, though.  As time goes on and the kids spend more time outside and with each other, they’ll become more and more self-reliant.

I try to remember in all of these situations to step back and let the little things slide.  My end goal is to encourage independent outdoor play.  If I’m constantly policing and putting countless stipulations on what the kids can and can’t do, then they’ll soon give up and move on to things that don’t require so much of them … things like television, computers and video games.  Let’s do our kids a favor and put up with a few minor inconveniences so they can get some major time outside.