Debbie Friedman was visiting with two other moms at Serrania Park in Woodland Hills on a spring day in 2002 when she noticed their children were talking to a man walking his dog on the other side of the park fence. She went over to see what was happening.
"He said, 'How old are you kids?' They replied 4 and 5. He said, 'Well, I'm 6. What are your names?' It was a really creepy conversation," she said.
Friedman said she thanked the man for showing the kids his dog and then sent the kids away.
"A lot of parents have fears of predators in the park watching them. It's hard to keep an eye on two little ones.... You're afraid they're going to run off and someone's going to snatch them," she said.
Parents cite a variety of reasons for shying away from taking their children to local parks, from safety to excessively hot, cold or inclement weather to unsanitary conditions on playgrounds and in bathrooms.
When many Jewish parents do take their kids to play outdoors, the locales they pick are often the tonier parks frequented by other Jewish parents, sometimes requiring them to drive 10 or 20 miles. Favored parks include Beeman Park in Studio City, Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills and Serrania Park.
Galit Almog is a working mom from North Hollywood who makes time to take her child to Beeman Park or Balboa Park in Van Nuys, but she said it's difficult to coordinate play dates with other parents because they also have busy schedules. As a result she said she's been gravitating toward Gymboree Play & Music, an indoor "edutainment" center.
Structured indoor learn-and-play venues have become increasingly popular as children lead more regimented lives. Academic expectations and after-school activities chew up free time for outdoor exploring, which was once the mainstay of childhood. Experts agree that the amount of play time available to the average child has been dramatically reduced to an hour or less each day. Factor in that many households require both parents to work and it's easy to understand why indoor play areas are gaining in popularity among young families.
"It's more structured, you have a teacher, you have music, things to play with and a routine kids get used to," Almog said.
Brentwood mom Natalie Bernstein is equally enamored with Gymboree after encountering unsanitary conditions at a neighborhood park.
"It's cleaner, safer and there's a greater choice of toys," she said.
Indoor play can also address the needs of parents, said Adrian Becker, the owner of Gymboree Play & Music franchises in Sherman Oaks, Northridge and Calabasas for the last 23 years. Becker said parents -- mostly women -- come to Gymboree to play with their children, learn songs and develop new parenting skills they can use at home, but most of all they're looking to make friends.
"I think parents are looking for community, and this is their way of connecting with like-minded people," she said. "The neighborhoods aren't what they used to be. It's hard to make friends in your neighborhood now."
Suzy Epstein, preschool director of Conservative synagogue B'nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks, said that parents want their children academically prepared, especially since many schools now teach kindergarten as if it were first grade.
"Kids already need to have so many skills that [parents] want children in a structured program, because they're afraid they won't be ready for kindergarten," Epstein said. "It's our job to prepare them, because that is what they have to face."
But some experts in children's recreation say that structuring play and confining it to temperature-controlled environments for safety and comfort reasons isn't good for children's development. They call for a balanced approach that includes unstructured outdoor play and caution that too much time spent indoors can have negative physical, social and psychological impacts.
"What's happened is what [UC Davis play expert] Mark Francis calls 'the childhood of imprisonment,'" said Randy White, CEO of White Hutchinson Leisure and Learning Group, a firm that designs children's play and learning centers.
"It's because of a total fear of public spaces and child abduction. Parents today are horrified. Some parents won't even let their children play in their own backyard unsupervised. The 'secured, sanitized spaces' are what kids are restricted to today," he said.
White believes this is stifling children.
"Most of these activities are very structured, and young children need play -- spontaneous free play, not directed play," he said.
One indoor venue offering an unstructured approach is Playsource, a playground set up in a Woodland Hills shopping center storefront on Ventura Boulevard. Children stow their shoes in cubbyholes, run across a carpeted floor and choose from jumping in an inflatable castle bounce, scaling a rock wall, climbing inside a spaceship or playing house in a scale model, among other activities. The only time limits placed on kids are the operating hours and their own stamina. Parents take a seat at picnic tables next to the play area and visit with each other, read or eat while the kids play.
Friedman started the playground six months ago as a way to work and spend more time with her own children.
"Parks aren't relaxing; you've got to chase your kids," Friedman said. "Here, you come in, pay your eight bucks, you pass the gate and sit down."
Jessica Gottlieb said she drives her two kids to Playsource at least once a week from Sherman Oaks.
"My kids beg for it," she said. "They aren't going to get hit, they're not going to get sand thrown in their eyes. They like that they can be more independent."
Gottlieb said she tries to split time evenly between outdoor parks and venues like Playsource, but if it gets too hot "we do indoor exclusively."
Parents who spoke with The Journal said lack of shade at parks adds to their reluctance to visit. Trees in parks have been purposefully cut back from playgrounds out of fear that a parent might sue the city if a falling branch were to strike a child, said Kevin Reagan, the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department's western regional superintendent.
Reagan said that L.A. Parks and Recreation offers some indoor programs, like gymnastics and dance, as well as some indoor play areas in child-care centers, but there are no plans to cover playgrounds or move them indoors.
"There's really nothing negative with parents choosing to take their kids to those other facilities," he said. "We have a lot of people living here and there is no way that the city can provide enough recreational opportunities for every person that needs them."
However, researchers are finding that spending too much time focused on indoor activities can have detrimental impacts on children's physical and emotional health. They advise parents to take their children outside more and let them play in ways that they determine for themselves.
"There's an enormous amount of research finally being done, which is documenting the importance of these types of experiences to children's development," White said.
Parents are doing their children a disservice by shielding them from hot or cold days, said Robert Bixler, associate professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at Clemson University in South Carolina.
Bixler warns that children will become accustomed to a narrow range of temperatures if they spend too much time in controlled environments. "Air conditioning and heating is wonderfully comfortable, but it ends up limiting the experiences we have," he said.
Another physical impact on children being traced to an indoor lifestyle is the growing problem of myopia, or nearsightedness. According to research conducted in Japan and Singapore by the Australian National University in Canberra, as kids spend more time indoors, focusing on close objects such as books, TVs and GameBoys, their vision is affected. Another study found that myopia rates in Israel among observant 14- to 18-year-old boys, who focus tremendous amounts of time studying religious texts, is 80 percent; only 30 percent of students in Israel's secular state schools exhibit such problems.
In addition to physical problems, emotional and social issues also come into play. Can guided play impact a child's sense of independence? You bet, said Jan Tolan, a CSUN leisure studies and recreation professor who specializes in play and recreation therapy.
"Depriving children of the freedom to explore or learn on their own is hurtful and damaging in many ways," she said.
Experts acknowledge that directed indoor play can positively impact on a child's development. But they also believe that when parents de-emphasize the importance of spending time outdoors it reduces a child's desire to explore the world and can potentially prejudice them against participating in future outdoor activities. "There's a whole range of experiences people shut themselves off from due to comfort," Bixler said.
Self-direction, decision making and problem solving can be learned outside of a park, but Tolan believes that these natural spaces encourage greater personal exploration, especially when done in a way that is entirely independent.
"Don't neglect that free time when the child can interact with the environment in any way they want to," Tolan said.
She said parents still need to supervise their children for safety reasons when they take them to a park, but from a distance.
"Step in only when it's absolutely necessary, or when invited by the child," she said.
Ultimately, recreation experts say parents should provide their children with a much-needed break in the structure of their busy days that will allow for the opportunity to independently explore the world and have fun.
"Balance is a guiding principal in anything. Yes, Gymboree has some things to offer that will help your child develop, but don't deprive your child of the park experience as well," Tolan said. "The park is a learning environment, too."