Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Building Community

Last Wednesday, we hosted our second community conversation, about building strong communities that foster a sense of shared responsibility for children so we can give them more freedoms and opportunities for unstructured play. The conversation was inspired by a lively discussion on the PlayWatch listserv, where parents expressed fear of letting their kids go and play and commented that it might be different if they knew their neighbors. The listserv thread pointed out that we often lack a shared, intergenerational responsibility for children, which leaves many parents feeling isolated.

So we wanted to hear from organizations and individuals who are doing something about it:

Leo Pollock and Susan Sakash talked about building community around growing food at Southside Community Land Trust's City Farm, a ¾ acre urban farm in South Providence, and at 11 community gardens, where over 220 families have plots. Southside also hosts after-school and summer garden programs and have a children’s garden, which is kept open to the community, giving kids access, an opportunity for “free form play,” and a feeling of ownership of the space.

Southside’s mission is to grow food, but also “to connect people to the land and to each other… to connect them to nature in a real way in the city.” Leo and Susan spoke about the power of having kids interact with – and work side by side with – people from the neighborhood, of different ages and ethnicities. Leo: “We think of play as parks and playgrounds, we think of nature as a particular place, fully green – but there are green areas in the city.”

We also heard about City Fest – an annual summer youth celebration/block party, open to the neighborhood, free for all kids. The fact that kids ask about it all year long shows “how much they want a day where they streets are theirs, where all adults are focused on them – a testament that they lack that for the other 364 days a year.”
Credit: Southside Community Land Trust

Jeanine Silversmith dreamed up RI Families in Nature after hearing Richard Louv speak about his book Last Child in the Woods just over a year ago and being inspired to start a nature club. She organizes monthly hikes across the state that are open to anyone who’s interested. At first she thought she’d feel successful getting herself out with her kids, and it’d be great it others joined – but she had 54 people on her last hike! She also sends a monthly e-newsletter with tips and tricks to get kids outside, recommended books, articles, outdoor spaces and more. (Sign up through the link above).

Jeanine talked about how the grown-ups spread out and share responsibility for watching all kids on the hikes – not just their own – and have to be ready to step in when needed. Museum director Janice O’Donnell said her experience of a RI Families in Nature hike was that it allowed for “friendships to form in natural ways.”
Credit: RI Families in Nature

After seeing our screening of “Where Do the Children Play?” last summer, Barrington residents Suzanne Cadge and Jane Knight realized that they felt isolated in their suburban neighborhood – and that they needed to take responsibility to make a change. They organized a neighborhood block party, the first gathering on their street in more than 20 years. Everyone was on board and they drew a mixed group – families with young children, older adults – for a day of fun that included a treasure hunt for kids, tricycle race for adults, bake off, ice cream social and a “get to know your neighbors” quiz. Everyone chipped in and some of the older neighbors expressed gratitude for their taking the initiative to make it happen. Plus the kids loved the freedom of running up and down the street and through neighbors’ yards!

Highlights from the conversation:
• Allowing your kids to walk to the playground sets an example – be the parent that takes the risk and others will follow
• The community garden next to the playground at the
Jewish Community Center in Providence allows parents to work while their kids play on their own nearby – even very young children
• Anisa, editor of Kidoinfo: The farmers’ market by Lippitt Park in Providence brings the community together with food and music – plus distracts parents a bit so kids have more freedom to roam
• We need parks that draw adults, too – having more adults around in places designed for kids can increase the freedoms kids are given
• On “stranger danger”: "There’s an assumption that kids are only safe when supervised by adults." "We need to give children tools and strategies, empower them more to take care of themselves and each other." "It’s not just about strangers, but about giving kids space to work things out, be creative, make up their own games."
• Importance of encouraging kids to get outside everyday – even in the rain and snow – to allow them to get dirty, to take risks
Credit: RI Families in Nature
• And parents need to spend time outside, too – critical mass: if some start, others will join
• Janice mentioned Playborhood, a website started by Mike Lanza, who welcomes the whole community to play in his yard in California. “We need to use the front of our houses – the stoop and yard – not just the back.”
• Need to find the balance of facilitating just enough for kids – and then knowing when to back off. (And we loved that Jane said that she learned a lot from the Children’s Museum, about letting kids go, letting them climb and try things!)
• Thinking about intergenerational community also means teens – giving them respect and responsibility fosters stronger relationships, and they can set the tone for kids

Another idea that came up during the conversation – this blog post by Richard Louv about “button parks,” claiming and protecting natural spaces in our neighborhoods for communal use. We also had a little brainstorm about simple ways to build community: using food to bring people together at a neighborhood potluck, planting trees or doing a clean up together…

All three stories showed the importance of initiative – just trying something and seeing what happens – plus the need for intergenerational connections in a community, and how much kids relish opportunities to roam freely.

So what do YOU think? What are you doing to build community in your neighborhood, or beyond? What do you want to do? And what topics should we tackle in future community conversations? Please comment about all of the above!

1 comment:

kidoinfo.com said...

Thanks to the Children's Museum for starting the playwatch listserv and hosting this series of conversations.

Although on Kidoinfo we promote many structured events and links to classes we are really about reminding parents to get offline and play with their kids. I love hearing what other people are doing in their community.

We also provide opportunities and many ideas for kids to have unstructured "play" time inside and out, allowing their imagination to go wild.