Bringing Back Childhood Summers


To those of us who think of childhood summers as carefree times for neighborhood fun, free of schedules and direct adult authority, children have no summers anymore.

Sure, school still ends every June and the weather still gets hot (except in San Francisco!), but neighborhoods are no longer filled with children’s yelps and laughter on summer days. In fact, for the most part, they’re completely dead, as dead as they are during school days in the winter.

Of all the unfortunate aspects of childhood in 21st-century America, this fact depresses me more than anything else.

So for one week this August, for the third year in a row, I’ll run a summer camp right here, in my neighborhood. It’s called “Camp Yale” after our street in Menlo Park. Also, two moms in Palo Alto will run their second annual “Camp Iris Way.” Camp Yale is very small compared to Camp Iris Way—about 12 attendees versus about 40.

However, the two share the same fundamental goal: to get kids playing outside in their neighborhoods on their own, without adults around. Unfortunately, in 21st-century America, kids don’t play en masse on their own. They need someone to teach them the ropes, and that’s what we aim to do at our camps.

The two camps take very different approaches to solving this problem. At Camp Yale, other invited adults and I try to set things in motion, then get out of the way as quickly as possible. This worked quite well, for instance, the day when we went down to explore the creek bed close to my house. I faded into the background and the kids had a magical day building forts.

Camp Iris Way’s organizers, Diana Nemet and Jennifer Antonow, employ middle school and high school kids from their neighborhood as camp counselors. This worked amazingly well last year. The counselors designed some great creative activities, and they also created a very playful atmosphere. After all, only a few years before, they were little kids themselves, so they could relate to the little campers well. If I knew of one or two middle schoolers or high schoolers who would be interested in being counselors in my immediate neighborhood, I’d try that approach, too.

In any event, the ultimate test isn’t how much fun the kids have, but rather the impact we make on their neighborhood lives after camp is over. Do they play with each other more on their own? Do they organize and referee their own games without asking for adult help?

Camp Yale and Camp Iris Way have made some progress toward these goals, but we have a lot further to go. If we’re really successful, our kids won’t need us out there running a summer camp anymore for them.

So, are you interested in running a neighborhood summer camp? If you are, please email me. I helped Camp Iris Way get started last summer, and I’m eager to help many more this year.


Mike Lanza is Founder and Chief Play Officer of You can reach him at

Image courtesy of Mike Lanza

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