On a short stretch of Iris Way in Palo Alto’s Duveneck neighborhood Wednesday, Sam Anderson grinned widely as a scene of juvenile madness unfolded before him.
Under a luminous sun, 72 children hurtled hundreds of water balloons at each other, dodging incoming fire and scrambling for ammunition. The projectiles rained down upon a rainbow collection of chalk drawings and foursquare courts, where the kids had spent the morning painting, playing duck-duck-goose and giving themselves facials with bright green oobleck.
For Anderson, 70, who has lived on Iris Way for 45 years, the moment marked a zenith in community engagement.
“It involves everybody whether you have children or not,” he said.
The “it” Anderson is referring to is Camp Iris Way, where this week nearly every child living on that street and adjacent Primrose Way is partaking in a do-it-yourself summer camp orchestrated by parents Jennifer Antonow and Diana Nemet and inspired by Playberhood, a blog run by Menlo Park resident Mike Lanza.
“I’m excited about because it involves the entire community and it keeps alive some traditions that we’ve had here for a number of years,” said Anderson.
Those traditions—rooted in free, unstructured street play with fellow neighborhood kids—are disappearing in America, say Antonow and Nemet.
“Neighborhood play harkens back to the 1950’s or even the 1970’s when a lot of what we experienced as kids was about just running around,” said Antonow. “’After school’ was playing baseball in the street, and your parents didn’t always know where you were, and the streetlights came on and you came inside. That’s the kind of motivation behind what we’re doing here.”
The camp, which runs Monday through Friday this week from 9 a.m. to noon, is made up of 72 kids divided into 20 counselors, 11 counselors-in-training (CITs) and 41 campers. Dozens of activity books and art supplies were donated by , including face paint, sidewalk chalk and paper flowers.
For $110, the kids get to play games, make art, eat snacks, and keep a bright camp t-shirt designed by a neighbor. But the real takeaways—the bonds that form between kids, the developmental benefits of free play, the joy the camp brings to the neighborhood—cannot be monetized. And for Nemet, there is always the element of surprise.
“Turned out four square is huge,” she said. “I had no idea what a hit four square would be. We used water-based spray chalk to draw courts on the street, and we had to add more each day because there were lines of kids waiting to play.”
“This camp is run by kids,” said Antonow. “Diana and I put some structure in place, but the teenagers—middle schoolers and high schoolers—are in charge of planning the day.”
Rachel Wood, a 15-year-old Palo Alto Prep Junior, helped launch the camp last year just after her family moved to the neighborhood.
“I love working with kids, and I love getting the experience,” said Wood. “And I get paid, too.” Counselors are offered a $130 stipend for the week’s work.
“It’s good to get to know all the kids on the street, because I’m moving in here, so I’m kind of like the newbie,” said Wood. “It’s really awesome to watch all the kids get together and grow together.”
“Free and unstructured play is healthy,” according to the report, “and - in fact - essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient.”
Part Two of "In Duveneck, a Neighborhood United by Free-Range Kids" will run Friday morning.