When I first arrived in the United States back in 2016, I made the decision to settle down in the Marina district in San Francisco, along with my 5-year-old and 3-year-old children. After school pickups, my routine involved taking my kids to the nearby playground. However, this experience was often disappointing as the playground was either deserted or frequented by the same individuals who didn't seem open to interaction. I struggled to create opportunities for my kids to engage with others their age.
Upon receiving a suggestion that suburbs might offer a more conducive environment, I embarked on research to compare three potential cities: Burlingame, Foster City, and Palo Alto. Ultimately, I chose to move to Palo Alto with high hopes that my children would have ample outdoor playtime here.
Understanding the significance of play in my life is crucial to this story. During my own childhood, I vividly recall rushing outside to play every day around 5 o'clock, only returning home when darkness fell at 8 pm. Reflecting on those years, my fondest memories revolve around those carefree playground moments, not academic achievements or competition wins. The friends I made during those play sessions remain some of my closest to this day. Whenever I face life's challenges, I turn to these childhood friends for support.
I aspired to provide the same enriching play experiences for my children, believing that strong play-based connections could help them navigate life's highs and lows. Unfortunately, my experience in Palo Alto did not align with my expectations. Playgrounds in the area were often deserted, and further investigation revealed that most children were rushing off to various enrichment classes immediately after school. These classes even occupied weekends and summer holidays.
I attempted to find like-minded parents who valued unstructured, free play for their children, but the coordination was nearly impossible due to differing school schedules, holiday closures, and other commitments. Consequently, I reluctantly enrolled my kids in enrichment classes, recognizing it as the only way they could interact with peers. While my children learned a great deal from these classes, they failed to establish strong bonds with their classmates but I consoled myself by telling myself they are learning. On one such occasion where I had enrolled my kids in back to back classes and another usual boy scouts at 6:30 pm in the evening, I saw my son very distraught. That's the day I realized I am making my kids even harder than I ever did. They start their day at 7:00 am and end it at 6 pm all the while listening to instructions of other adults in their life and being their puppets of performance and always working towards someone's expectations. Day in and day out. They definitely were not happy.
My belief was further reinstated by the work of Peter Gray’s “The importance of play” who suggested people are having lesser mental health outcomes because of playing less.
To determine if this challenge extended beyond my own experience, I conducted a nationwide survey to gauge how parents preferred their children to spend their time versus how they actually did. The results were unanimous—parents wished for their children to engage in more play. However, three main obstacles hindered this desire:
Coordination was challenging.
Everyone seemed busier than ever.
Children wanted to connect with peers who shared their interests.
Although people didn’t say it as a part of survey, I feel there were two more deterrants to preventing kids from play. Play is nothing new so why did it stop
The existence of an alternative of digital devices and solutions like “Rethinking social development with Moxie, a robot companion for kids”. Feel like blasphemy to me.
Both parents working and kids being dependent on parents to shuttle them to actually play.
I knew kids in India still came out and played. So I decided to move there for a year. And surely kids do play. Sometimes even without playgrounds kids play. On the streets, in the car parking lot. Maybe better weather, maybe how the community is structured or maybe just maybe the fact that everyone came out at 5 pm still. But play is declining in India too with the onslaught of enrichment classes, kids are busier even in India.
With all of these findings, I embarked on a journey to create a solution alongside Anshu. Together, we developed Play Connect—a platform designed to address each of these issues
Coordination solved by an open calendar
Inclusion solved by openness of the platform
Safety solved by it being a private network
Now we hope to deploy it for communities so kids can again connect with each other, get more playtime, teach them kindness and inclusion and build lasting bonds that will carry them through life.
Akanksha, CEO Humanness