05/14/2012 06:24 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2012

Kids Suffer Without Neighborhood Playtime

I'm not going to paint one of those sappy portraits of play gone by. We all know by now that most of us played more freely than our kids do today. Seldom do we drive down a street and see kids wildly riding bikes or playgrounds crowded with children who have walked from home with other neighborhood kids.

That's because childhood has become serious business, and these past scenes have been thrown under the bus for a youth focused on academics and extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, we often think our kids have it better, but in reality, all this adult supervision and structured time simply isn't serving our children well. There is research that says so, and there are plenty of play advocates, parents and educators that believe the same.

I'm one of those parents and play advocates, as well as a former teacher. As a mom of three young children living in New York City, where the obsession for academic success has reached a fever pitch of preschool tutors and kindergarten interviews, I feel I understand pretty clearly what our children lack most: free play time.

Mike Lanza, of Menlo Park, CA, gets this, too. Though he has been blessed with wide streets, a great public school nearby, a yard and lots of families, kids in his neighborhood still don't play. At least they didn't before he moved in. His new book, Playborhood, titled after his popular blog by the same name, chronicles Lanza's quest to transform his neighborhood into a -- well, you get it.

Over those seven years he has learned a lot about how to engage fearful parents and kids numbed by structure and too many rules. In Playborhood, he outlines his biggest lessons and takes the reader from community to community around the country, showing us that neighborhoods where kids play do exist, even if they are the exception to the rule.

He holds the readers hand, walking them through the reality of what we perceive as the greatest road blocks to free play time: things like excessive amounts of homework and stranger danger. The truth of the matter is that homework never got a kid into college and the statistics on stranger danger simply don't hold up. Lanza writes, "It's roughly 40 times more likely that a child will be killed as a passenger in an automobile accident than they will be abducted by a stranger and killed. It's also 1,600 times more like that a child will be injured as a passenger in an automobile accident than they will be abducted by a stranger at all."

If you would like to read more about real crime statistics in the United States, look here. Crime has dropped steadily since the early nineties. In fact, the crime rate is now lower than it was when this writer was running barefoot in the streets until dusk. The media and current parenting trends would not have you believe this, though, and that is why Lanza believes it's time for parents to take back their communities. Neighborhood play is vital to a child's life, and in an era in which kids age 8 to 18 spend seven hours a day consuming electronic media and 22.2% of teens will suffer from a mental disorder in their lifetime, we have a serious social problem on our hands. We must take action.

Luckily, Playborhood, was meant for action. Lanza lays out simple ideas about how to engage one's local community, like hanging out in the front yard rather than the back and encouraging self-reliance in children even as young as 6 or 7 years old. For example, Lanza and his wife have encouraged their oldest son, 7-year-old Marco, to ride his bike to school and even to the bike shop alone, then home again.

As someone that has been working in the field of education and play advocacy for quite some time, I can honestly say I was inspired after reading Playborhood. I have never seen a book quite like it; it so clearly give readers a sense that they can do this. In fact, Lanza, the father of three young boys, doesn't have a background in play or education. He simply understands that we need to change the direction our kids are headed. Their health and happiness is too important. Their futures are at stake. What are we going to do about it?