I have neighbors who build their own haunted house for Halloween each year. (Timely reference, I know, but stick with me here.)
They have scary clowns, animatronic monsters and a less-than-frightening lion to calm the young’ns. The house’s crowning grace is a 12-foot grim reaper that stands guard over their front yard.
My children wait for the reaper’s arrival each year like it was Santa Claus.
Once the reaper rises, my family will walk to the haunted house every week to see what other decorations have been installed.
And it’s not just us. The block gets crowded with curious kids and their parents. We talk weather and argue about sports, while our kids play tag or dare each other to touch the reaper.
Those few weeks in October, our block feels like the neighborhood used to when I was a kid. It feels like a community.
Please pardon me, I’m going to make a few assumptions here:
You probably have kids. Don’t get me wrong, we welcome and love all our readers. But you probably read Northeast Ohio Parent because you are a parent.
Presuming you have children, you’re at least a generation older than a kid. You may even remember dial-up Internet.
Finally, your kids’ childhood is vastly different than your own.
Not to drift into nostalgia, but I played outside as a kid. A lot. We built snow forts and lost football games to the neighbor kids. We had a park about a mile from our house. I can still trace its trails in my mind.
By comparison, our kids spend a lot of time in front of screens — televisions, phones, tablets and the like. According to Common Sense Media, kids ages 7 and younger average roughly two hours and 19 minutes in front of screens each day. That number leaps to more than four hours a day for 8- to 12-year-olds.
Kids don’t spend less time in school or doing homework than we used to. In fact, they spend more. So what are kids sacrificing to spend more time with screens? Based on the statistics, they’re losing unstructured playtime. Usually outside.
Snow forts or playing in the park has been lost to Fortnite.
To be clear, I’m neither a luddite nor the Screenslaver. I’m not here to rage against the future. I don’t miss dial-up.
But we do know the value of playing outside. It’s been linked to better grades and social skills, less depression, more creativity, better sleep and improved eyesight.
And, just as importantly, you can only create neighborhoods — real neighborhoods — by getting outside and meeting the neighbors.
Ask yourself: How many of your neighbors did you know as a kid? How many do you know now?
That’s why my neighbor’s haunted house is such a revelation. It’s not just that it’s impressive. (It is.) Or that it’s fun. (Also, yes.) But it yokes together people who live in the same proximity and makes them something more.
Now, I’m not stating anything new here. Whole books have been written about it. (Peruse Mike Lanza’s “Playborhood,” if you get the chance.) But getting outside more is good for everyone — your kids, your neighborhood and you. Or do you want to hear “Baby Shark” on YouTube 12 more times today?
Both Lanza’s “Playborhood” and the Internet are filled with ambitious ideas for turning a yard into a wonderland: two-story clubhouses; whiteboard fences for the kids to draw on; and in-ground trampolines.
But you don’t need to build a house-sized grim reaper, either, to turn your neighborhood into a playborhood. You can start with something as simple as having a picnic in your front yard or drawing with sidewalk chalk.
Little kids still love a good sandbox. Hide a few coins in there, if you really want to make their afternoon. Or you can use that basketball hoop you hung on the garage a decade ago.
Because kids will find the fun almost anywhere. We just need to let them. And, if we don’t… well, it’s a long wait until next October.