Saturday, June 25, 2016

Come Together

A sweet friend of mine recently asked me to make a guest post on her blog. She made a point to acknowledge  up front  that she and I don't see eye to eye on all things and to assure me that her posts aren't typically focused on those areas where we disagree. I appreciate and admire her candor and consideration for my viewpoints and my image, but this isn't something that really concerns me. I actually really value the fact that this person thinks very differently from me on some issues, yet still respects my viewpoints, and that we can share similar views on many other topics without feeling we need to overlap in every area. I told her this, too. Though, of course, it's nice - and probably necessary - to agree on some things with close friends, I tremendously value those friends that challenge my beliefs and broaden my horizons, or those who simply hold their tongues when they think my ideas are totally nuts (and I can then happily do the same for them). We don't have to have everything in common. Our world is actually richer when we are surrounded by interesting, kind people with whom we respectfully disagree.

It's the "respectfully" part that is the key component here. With it, we have a world that is richer and more lively, more vibrant. Without it, we have discord. We engage in a bleak, anxious scrambling to prove who is right. This happens a lot online. A lot. Probably because the other people cease to become "other people" in our eyes as we start pounding away at the keyboard, seeing them only as their words, their beliefs, their ideas with which we disagree. The more distanced we become from people, the less we see them as individuals and the more we see them as "the other," the less we care about them and their feelings. They become less real, less human to us. This is where we start hammering out the nastiness in the comments section. This is where we fire off the angry email, the accusatory response with a snarky grammar critique. This is where we stop listening, because we've become detached. We cease to see the other person's point of view and we cease to learn from one another.

 Two people I hold in very high regard, both as bloggers and real-life people, have recently written lovely blog posts related to this notion (Maggie Clarke at Everything is Fine Here and Tom Hobson at Teacher Tom). So obviously the clear choice was for me to rehash what they had to say rather than start on that guest post (which I am also working on, for the record).

I kid. I've actually been devoting a great deal of thought to this idea of people with differing mindsets coming together, building community. I speak and think and write a lot about the microcosm that is my playschool, in which the kids are learning to accept one another and interact in ways that benefit the whole group through their play. This is necessity for them - in order for them to have playmates, to have fun, they have to accept each other and work through their differences. One of the core principles of play is that everyone participates by choice and is free to leave at any time.

This is something that kids grew up having all the time a generation or two ago - they roamed their neighborhoods and played with whoever was available, no matter if they were a different age or gender or race or culture. They learned to work out their differences so they had playmates. Fast forward to our current generation of kids who typically interact with peers chosen by their parents during playdates at one another's houses, The playmate pool is already narrowed based on the parents' connections and preferences and also generally by  the children's age/ grade in school, as well. Then the children's play is typically overseen very, very closely by the adults. I'm concerned that these kids aren't learning to see the "other" as a person, to empathize with other viewpoints or to navigate differences on their own.

Now I know that there are lots of readers pausing here, who wish to point out that a few generations ago, society was very much segregated and people were unlikely to interact very much with those outside of their own particular race or social class. This is absolutely true - but hear me out.

We no longer live in a segregated country (though that's debatable, unfortunately). The laws say we can and should all frequent the same spaces and do the same things and we should theoretically all be living and working together. We have constant access to social media and ways to reach out to people in the far reaches of the globe. WE SHOULD BE GETTING BETTER AT THIS. We should be more worldly and open minded and aware. We should be less separate, less segregated. We should be coming together, embracing our differences. Sometimes I"m not sure if this is happening at all. It seems we may be trading one kind of segregation for another.

No longer comfortable with letting our kids play outside, we come home and keep them inside with us. watching TV or playing video games - perhaps playing creatively, too, yes, but still typically inside and often alone. Play with other children is planned and cultivated and often takes the form of organized sports. Adults are able to narrow their own social circles and media consumption down such that they are only exposed to views they already agree with. We are still, in so many ways, segregated from those who are different from us, but now it is through our own choice. Further, the current generation of children aren't getting the opportunities to develop and practice the skills they will need to reach out to others. Their lives are so structured, so cultivated, so managed by adults.

About a year ago, I participated in a discussion forum intended to find ways to improve our city's public schools, which are largely failing. The schools here were not desegregated until 1981 and the effort left the schools still mostly segregated, with white families fleeing for private schools in droves (the linked articles give an excellent overview of the history here and its modern repercussions, if you are interested). The results are tremendous, and disheartening. Not only are our schools still largely segregated along racial and economic lines, the gap between "have" and "have not" continues to grow, with the public schools, save a few "magnet" programs, continuing to be housed in unacceptable facilities without the funds for such basics as soap and paper towels in the bathrooms. Families who are able continue to opt for private school, feeling forced to pay to get their children a quality education. Those who cannot afford to pay often have no choice. As test scores continue to plummet (a dubious measure of school quality, to be sure), administrators and legislators scramble to solve the problem through measures that actually make things worse - increasing instruction time, increasing student assessment and data collection, cutting recess, making schools more structured, less warm and inviting. Depriving these students of their basic rights as children. Studies have shown for decades that what children really need to thrive and succeed are opportunities to engage in hands-on, interactive, child-led learning, opportunities to play and recharge, and opportunities to build meaningful relationships with caring adults at school.

I went into this event armed with information on how play and developmentally appropriate behavior expectations would benefit our schools. I spoke and I feel my voice was heard, but as I listened, a broader issue emerged - loss of community. Participants of all races and all ages, but especially the older members of the group, lamented loss of community as a primary concern. Loss of community as a result of forced busing of students outside their neighborhood school zones. Loss of community due to the white flight to private schools, and further flight from the "haves" of all races as the city's public schools began to fail.  Loss of community as the district scrambled to create more magnets and other special programs then moved them from campus to campus (many feel this is an effort to cover failing test scores of the basic population, especially with the district's gifted programs which are frequently housed in "rough" neighborhood schools and moved from school to school). Loss of community as the schools became increasingly less child-centered, and increasingly more data- centered.They mourned the loss of the neighborhood school as a place where kids felt safe and welcomed, where parents were a welcomed part of the school community, where there was continuity from year to year. An overarching theme from the older members of the group was the fact that neighborhood schools were once strong community centers and now they simply aren't. We've made all these efforts to solve specific problems, and created more in the process.

We don't need more tests.

We don't need more arbitrary rules and regulations.

We need to see kids as people. We need to embrace them for who they are and find ways to help them grow to be their best selves. This means allowing them to be children who behave as children do, and allowing them to play and socialize during the school day. This means backing off sometimes so that they can learn to empathize with others and manage their own emotions.

We need to make schools the kinds of places that parents and grandparents and engaged members of the community feel welcomed.

This means finding a way to get to know our neighbors so we can see where we are alike, instead of only seeing the "otherness."

This doesn't mean pretending we are all the same and have exactly the same needs. It means valuing and respecting our differences while finding common ground.

We need to see each other as people, no matter how different we are or how much we may disagree. We need to reach out and build connections. We need to mend our communities.

I was fortunate enough to hold my inaugural "Pop Up" play event at Front Yard Bikes, a terrific community resource in Old South Baton Rouge. Every aspect of it was wonderful, but most exciting the coming together of people of all ages and backgrounds to play, to hang out, to get to know each other better and build connections.

Big kids helped little kids, kids from public schools and private schools and kids whose parents would never facilitate play dates with one another as well as those who were old, close friends... these kids all just PLAYED together. They built and laughed and argued and problem solved together.

They came together. The built a community, no matter how temporary, how fleeting. In those moments, differences were forgotten and common goals were shared. Their lives were made richer.

Adults can learn a lot from kids at play.

I was talking with Dustin, the founder of Front Yard Bikes, as I cleaned up after our Pop Up. He remarked that we operate on opposite ends of the spectrum, and there is a lot of truth in that. I'd argue that we are more alike than it seems, however.

He described himself as a "drill sergeant" compared to my free-form play facilitator. In his role he has to be stern at times, and hold the kids who work with him to high standards. Those kids - many of them better described as young adults - come to him to learn work ethic and work skills. This is their job and he expects them, rightly, to act accordingly. He runs a tight ship but his love for those kids and his desire to see them succeed is evident in every action, every word. Further, the atmosphere he cultivates and the expectations of the kids who work with him are authentic. They are real. The rules and consequences aren't contrived, they are carefully designed to benefit the kids of FYB. He's not simulating "the real world." He has created a very real community where every member's contributions are necessary and valued. 

We are both meeting the needs of the kids we work with, and acting out of love for them. The needs, of course, are different for my bubbling, bustling preschoolers, just starting out on their journey and exploring their worlds. Play is how they understand their world, build their social and emotional regulation skills, build the foundation for future academic endeavors of all kinds. His kids are closer to "launch," and in need of a different kind of guidance. 

We are both dedicated to strengthening "our kids" through authentic, meaningful experiences, and to building stronger communities for them. We are tapping into our individual strengths to realize those goals. Very different, but very much the same. I'm honored to have shared the FYB space and gotten the opportunity to see this amazing program in action. The benefits to the community that Front Yard Bikes provides are tremendous, and my world is richer in connecting to this resource. 

This is what we need to do.

We need to come together.

We need to come together as often as we can, even if it is only for short moments like this Pop-Up Play Day. We need to talk and share and occasionally just step back and watch kids at play. Because they've kind of got it all figured out. 

We need help one another to educate and nurture the whole child. Our schools aren't getting the job done right now, so we need to help each other to fill those gaps. There were many discussions that day about possible ways we can begin to help our schools, ways we can change this, and that's exciting and it makes me optimistic for the future. But we can't just wait for that to happen. We have to help each other now. 

We have to look past the differences and find that we share so much already. 

Interested in learning more about building community through play? 

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