Start a Playgroup in a Retirement Home

kids at nursing home, playgroup in nursing home,

Sprout something new. (image: pixabay)

I started a playgroup, years ago, that met in a nursing home. Later, when I wrote an article offering six ways we can bypass today’s age-segregation to more fully involve children in their communities, I started the article with the tale of that playgroup. Readers keep asking for more details so they can organize something similar. Here’s my tale again, this time with some helpful hints. 

Surely my baby was as good as a dog.

I’d read that nursing home residents benefited enormously from contact with therapy dogs. During and after dog visits these elders were more alert and happier. So I figured, why not bring my baby to a nursing home?

Initially I’d thought about going room to room with my baby for one-on-one visits. But as I sat at a LeLeche meeting, it occurred to me that more babies might offer a bigger boost.

So I contacted a nursing home around the corner to ask. The administrator had never heard of such an idea but she was wildly enthusiastic. She referred me to the home’s activity director to start planning. That was the easiest part.

Then I starting talking friends with babies into forming a nursing home-based playgroup for our infants and toddlers. It took a LOT of convincing on my part to get them to agree. They were afraid of germs, smells, and their baby’s reactions to people with obvious disabilities.

I wondered about those problems too, particularly the germs. I know that some pretty virulent infections can get passed around in such facilities. So I talked a local store into donating a large carpet remnant for our little ones to crawl and play on. Between visits, the nursing home could roll it up for storage. It was a sort of “safe zone’ so parents felt their kids wouldn’t be exposed to germs or unwanted touching by the seniors.

I also told the staff that I’d call each day before a scheduled playgroup to ensure there weren’t any colds, flu, or other infections going around. And of course, asked that any individual residents who seemed ill would not attend. Parents also agreed to skip a session if they or their little ones seemed at all ill.

The first few playgroup sessions tested us. Not the nursing home residents, but the parents. There were, quite honestly, some seniors whose disabilities seemed a bit scary to us at first. But the babies didn’t care. Safely in a mom’s arms or in her lap they smiled, cooed, and waved to the residents with complete acceptance.

Parents brought a few toys each time and we all sat on the carpet with our babies. At first we felt a little like a zoo exhibit with a ring of wheelchairs around us, but that feeling went away. The elders were clearly delighted simply to see and hear babies.

There were certainly problems getting our group established. We started off with three mothers, one grandmother, and four babies. That’s actually a good number, although to keep the playgroup going we’d need enough people so that absences by one or two members wouldn’t whittle the session down too far.

Quite a few of the parents who initially said they’d attend just couldn’t bring themselves to show up. Only after they heard some glowing reports did a few of them give it a try. Honestly, such a playgroup isn’t for everyone. There’s a distinct pleasure in a playgroup itself, but parents who stayed committed also looked at our sessions as volunteer work.

We met regularly at that nursing home for several years. We held up picture books and read aloud to an audience old and young. We sang songs, played clapping games, and built block towers. Our babies grew into toddlers, elders and staff became our friends. Residents’ families and staff members often told us that our visits stimulated memories, generated activity, even inspired people who were mostly mute to say a few words. One woman who had refused to eat, doing little more than cry since her stroke, started eating again after spending the morning with our playgroup.

We were awed that the simple presence of babies made a difference. Just sitting on the carpet playing with our children helped people whose once full lives were now constricted. We benefited too. We learned the value of advice given by people older than our grandparents. We noticed how completely our toddlers accepted the physical and mental differences around them with natural grace. And we gained a sense of connection across the generations, a sense that’s far too rare in a a disengaged culture.

 

Tips

I had a ready pool of potential parents in my Le Leche group, but you can post information about the idea to all sorts of places, from your food co-op to house of worship. Try a local parent group, start a playgroup Meetup, find a chapter of the Holistic Moms Network or Moms Club.

Don’t be afraid to start a playgroup with only a friend or two. It’ll grow. Once you’re comfortable and have established a routine, start sharing your experiences on social media. And don’t forget traditional media. Our local paper wrote a short piece about our nursing home-based playgroup and ran a great picture of a profoundly wrinkled lady smiling at a baby. After that ran we had up to 12 parents who came to our sessions (the carpet piece was barely big enough).

You may prefer to organize a playgroup at an assisted living facility or senior center rather than a nursing home. These elders are healthier and much more able to engage in conversation with the kids.

Don’t limit yourself to the concept of a baby/toddler playgroup. A nearby senior center or assisted living facility may agree to set up any number of programs. Here are a few ideas.

  • I write in Free Range Learning about several initiatives such as a skills clinic where seniors offer workshops to kids, and Girlfriend Circle where a girls attend a monthly tea party with seniors.
  • Set up co-learning events, where kids and seniors together learn something new to them like whittling, cartooning, or pot throwing.
  • You might also start a program for preteens and teens to teach their elders tech skills, from downloading music to mastering a new smart phone.
  • Right now a documentary about a preschool housed in a retirement home is in the works. Present Perfect is still raising funds on Kickstarter for post production.
  • A senior retirement community not far from me offers a free apartment to music students who agree to offer concerts. It’s working beautifully.

 

Gifting a Week of Meals

giving meals, cooking for others, meal sharing,

Yum. (CC by 2.0 thebittenword.com on flickr)

Soon after my second baby was born, I was informed that I’d be receiving a week of meals delivered by my friends. The next seven nights our doorbell rang and there stood someone dear to me holding warm dishes filled with delights.

A break from planning and making dinner was a blessed relief. It also exposed my family to a wider array of foods. More importantly, each night we sat down to eat a relaxed dinner lovingly made for us.

We were given so much food that we tucked lots of it in the freezer, spreading the bounty of kindness into the following weeks. One friend came laden with two different kinds of lasagna, one with garlicky white sauce and spinach, another layered with black beans and lots of veggies. Years later I still make both of her recipes.

A week of meals for families with new babies became a tradition in my circle of friends and my Le Leche League chapter. Here’s what worked for us.

1. Someone particularly close to the new mom and her family usually broached the idea to their mutual friends. We never designated a person in charge of planning. But your group of friends, or church, or neighborhood may decide that putting one person in charge of noting who will make a meal which night makes it easier.

2. We contacted the new mom with some basic questions such as best days and times to drop off food, food preferences, and if she wanted food brought ready to eat at dinner time or in advance to heat up later that day. Some moms preferred to have meal deliveries every other day.

3. Then we verified the plans with all potential participants. It worked best to accommodate a variety of needs among people contributing meals. Some preferred to drop off bags of Mid-Eastern salads or trays of sushi they picked up on the way home from work. Some didn’t have time to deliver a meal during the week but happily provided brunch on the weekend. It helped to jot down what people were planning to make so the family didn’t end up with three enchilada entrees on three consecutive nights.

4. We sent out a full schedule to everyone participating. It functioned as a reminder, listed who was bringing what, and offered suggestions such as labeling pans and including recipes. A shared Google doc can uncomplicate things. Or use one of these online meal scheduling sites to make this easier:

Meal Baby

Take Them a Meal

Meal Train

Care Calendar

Lotsa Helping Hands

Caring Meals

Of course, a new baby isn’t the only reason to provide a series of meals. It’s a great way to welcome someone home when they return from service project or military assignment. It’s a godsend when people are dealing with illness or injury. And it’s remarkably helpful during the time a family is undergoing a major home renovation. Mix it up. Rather than arranging a week of steady meals, you might offer a meal every Wednesday or set up a regular potluck date to eat together.

There may be no more basic gesture of kindness than feeding people. Food sharing is a tradition found in every culture, stretching back to our earliest history. It’s a stomach-filling, community-building kindness like no other. It can also swing back around remarkably. By the time my fourth child was born I was gifted with a full three weeks of meals, nearly all made by people I’d once cooked for. It was an embarrassment of riches but oh how those delicious foods warmed our hearts.

Other ways to build community:

Bring Kids Back to the Commons

Engage the Window Box Effect

It Really Does Take a Village

We Don’t Need No Age Segregation 

Welcome Kids Into the Workplace More Than Once a Year

Odd Second Saturday Suppers

Better Together: Restoring the American Community

The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods

All That We Share

This is a repost from our farm site

International Hosting: How Strangers Become Family

Children of Chernobyl, host a child,

Tanya’s portrait.

“It’s a decision of the heart.”

Director Patty Knable sat at our kitchen table interviewing my family as potential hosts for the Children of Chernobyl Project.  It had taken almost two years to get the Ohio branch of this non-profit to consider us (based in Youngstown, they preferred families nearby). I hoped we passed muster.

The Children of Chernobyl Project brought kids each year from contaminated areas in Belarus to stay for the summer with host families. Vast amounts of radiation were released in the 1986 catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. Radionuclides spread from the Ukraine across Europe, leaving 23 percent of the territory in Belarus highly contaminated. Food, water, even the dust exposed people to radiation. (It will continue to do so for countless generations.) The result? Much higher risks of cancers, genetic mutations, and other health problems. Getting kids out of that area for a few months each year to live with host families helped to boost their immune systems. We were told it had to do with eating uncontaminated food and getting medical care. Patty said extra happiness helped too.

I asked how she matched a child with a host family. She said it was hard to explain. She looked at the names of the children on her list, thought about the families who had applied, and let something past intuition guide her. “It’s amazing how it works out,” she said. “It’s a decision of the heart.”

A few weeks later we were told the little girl who would stay with us that summer was Tatiana, seven years old. We learned very little about her in advance other than she was an only child.

I knew she had to be a very brave little girl to travel thousands of miles away from home to stay with strangers, people who didn’t even speak her language. I knew her parents must be even braver. I wondered if I’d be able to muster the courage to send my children away if I were in the same situation. (Our home is closer to two nuclear power plants, along the shores of Lake Erie, than Tatiana’s family was to the ruined Chernobyl plant, so the consideration is important.) I’d long been driven to act in opposition to the splitting of the atom, but preparing to host this little girl felt entirely different than petitions and rallies and lobbying. It felt like simply extending a hand of friendship from our family to hers.

Finally the day arrived. We’d set up a bedroom for her with art supplies and puzzles, some new clothes, and simple wrapped gifts.  I’d ordered all sorts of Russian language kid’s books and audiotapes from the library. We’d hung a banner over the front porch with WELCOME in Cyrillic letters as well as English. And we’d prepared by learning Russian words and phrases. I even taped cheat sheets in the inside of cupboard doors so I could ask her questions like what she wanted for breakfast.

It was a long drive to the Youngstown airport, although nothing like the trip this little girl had been enduring. She’d been traveling with a group of other children and volunteers. The last leg of their trip would be in small aircraft flown by volunteer pilots. The tiny airport was aswirl with families welcoming kids returning for repeat visits. As each plane landed we stood at high fences watching their young passengers disembark. When seasoned host families,  carrying balloons and gifts, spotted a returning child they waved and screamed their names. Many planes landed before I saw a little girl with a honey-colored ponytail and a red baseball cap get off the plane. My heart leaped. I’d never seen a picture of her but I was sure this was our child.

When our names were finally called to the room where the children were waiting we were introduced to a different girl. Okay, I thought, my intuition was wrong. I knelt down to say privet to her. Just then she was pulled back by the volunteers, who apologized for the mix-up. Another girl was brought forward. The girl with the honey-colored hair and the red cap. Yes, my heart said, yes.

From the very first day this darling little girl’s personality shone brightly. She made it clear she preferred to be called “Tanya.” She told us, almost entirely through gestures, about her first plane ride by showing us that her seatmate Yulia cried for her Mama, that Yulia retched, that the stewardessa droned on in “angleesh.”

We thought we’d learned enough Russian to speak to her. We were wrong. But our pronunciation gave her something to laugh about, which helped. We spent a lot of time flipping through our illustrated Russian/English dictionary pointing and giggling at each other’s languages. My kids adored the Russian words she taught us (the belly button is called “poop”) and the Russian drinking songs she sang for us. That first night, thanks to library materials, we danced to the Hokey Pokey in Russian.

Tanya was horrified by my vegetarian meals, refused to participate in the activities my outdoor-loving children preferred, and let us know that she hadn’t traveled so far to live like a peasant. She wanted to be entertained!

Children of Chernobyl.

Amusing my new daughter from Belarus.

My scruples fell by the wayside. Like anthropologists to our own culture we explored shopping malls and tourist sites, went to amusement parks rather than wilderness areas, even bought some fast food meals. Tanya picked up English quickly. She displayed her brilliance in many other ways too, typically beating any of us at board games we’d played for years and she’d just learned.

She made friends in the neighborhood and particularly adored spending time with my daughter, her American sister. Her time here changed all of us, especially my four kids. She became a member of our family, a family that now joyfully extends to Belarus.

host a child, international hosting, homestay programs,

She stayed with us every summer until she turned thirteen.

That last summer she’d been hosted as many times as the program could allow. We did our best to stay in touch by sending letters as well as holiday and birthday gifts. We got a few letters back from her, each one ending with how much she loved and missed us and hoped we remembered her. Then those letters didn’t come any more. Finally she got computer access and got in touch. We learned she’d received none of our gifts the last few years and thought we’d forgotten her.

This year we managed to help her get a travel visa, not easy in a country like hers, and flew her here to stay with us. She’s a new university graduate now, a gracious and lovely young woman. She just left to return home few days ago. We can’t wait to visit her some day, to meet her parents and immerse ourselves in her culture. She’s a forever member of our family, a daughter of our hearts.

Children of Chernobyl, become a host, international hosting opportunities,

Our beloved Tanya, all grown up, enjoying one of our favorite restaurants.

Become a Host! 

I think we all need to love specific individuals in different places in the world instead of staying on our own little street corners. One way to do this is by hosting people in your home. You can do this informally, inviting far-off online friends or people you’ve met through other long-distance connections to stay if they come your way. There are also plenty of programs that bring people to your door, people who may very well become family to you in a short time. Here are a few ways.

Host a child:

There are many organizations with the name Children of Chernobyl operating in the UK, Canada, and the US, most with similar guidelines for hosting families.

Urban kids in the US are matched up with families living outside the city, where the kids stay for a week or two, via the Fresh Air Fund. This link is for the NYC program, but you may find one in your area. We hosted an engaging little boy through a similar Cleveland program, called Friendly Town, which no longer seems to be in operation. He came one summer, then a few weekends, but moved out of state before we could host him the next summer.

Exchange students are a lively way to connect. Some programs are short stay, others are a full school year. Check out well-established programs with support personnel in your area like American Field ServiceYouth for UnderstandingRotary Youth Exchange, or World Exchange. Friends of ours have hosted a high school student every year for the last 11 years. They stay in touch with these young people and their families, and have visited nearly every student in his or her home country.

Host an adult:

Check out groups you are affiliated with such as religious institution, charity, or club. Oftentimes these groups will need short term lodging for a speaker or visitor.

Welcome a visiting professional through the Fulbright Scholar Program. We know a retired couple who have opened their home for years to educators and researchers from dozens of countries around the world through this program.

Register with the AFS Intercultural Program to host young people performing community service or teachers doing foreign exchange service at a nearby school.

Sign up with the National Council for International Visitors. This organization connects visiting leaders from other countries to people in the community. You might welcome them for a meal, show them the highlights in your area, or host them for a few days.

Join Servas, the oldest of international exchange programs. You can serve as a day host or offer a homestay.

Build Community Using Bookish Goodwill

sharing economy, free books, little libraries,

You can’t have too much of a good thing, unless you’re averse to bliss. One of life’s Very Good Things, in my book (pun!) is the library. There’s a movement afoot to augment our public libraries with other ways of spreading bookish goodwill. This doesn’t just get books into more hands, it actually builds positive networks between people and strengthens our communities.

Roaming Libraries

One unique venture is BookCrossings.  Started in 2001, it’s a read and release method of sharing books. Once you’ve read and enjoyed a book, simply go online to print out a label, then leave your book in a public place like a coffee shop, hair salon, playground, or doctor’s office. The label assures others the book is free to anyone interested. The label also contains a code so readers can track and follow books as they are read, discussed, and released again elsewhere in the world. Currently over 8 million books are traveling through 132 countries.

Handmade Book Libraries

In the art world, hand crafted books of all kinds have long traveled on round robin circuits allowing artists to collaborate in making and appreciating these unique creations.

Handmade books are also released in limited runs to appreciative readers who share the works through lending programs such as the Underground Library in Brooklyn. Here experimental literature is bound using labor intensive traditional methods, then distributed to members who pass the book along to a dozen other people before it’s returned to the library.

Banned Book Libraries

Surely people have been sharing what authorities don’t want them to know long before information was stored on papyrus scrolls. Remember the parochial school student who stocked her locker with banned books, using a check out system and due dates to keep track? This may be an urban myth but we know full well when reading material is banned it attracts even more dedicated readers.

This is true even when real danger is involved. As Azar Nafisi described in her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, after Ayatollah Khomeini banned Western influences she gathered students in her home to read and discuss books, some photocopied page by page, despite the risk.

Micro Libraries

Tiny libraries are appearing in all sorts of places. For example in San Jose four new libraries don’t have funding to hire staff.  Instead, volunteers run a Friends of the Library book lending program out of a small room in a community center.

In San Francisco, a few shelves in the Viracocha antique store have become a tiny library called Ourshelves which is “curated by local authors and readers eager to share their favorite works with fellow book lovers.”

Free-standing libraries, called Corner Libraries are popping up in NYC. These tiny buildings evade zoning requirements by remaining on hand trucks, usually chained to a stationery object. One is a four foot tall clapboard structure offering books, maps, even a CD featuring baby photos of world dictators. Another Corner Library, named the East Harlem Seed & Recipe Library, looks like a planter but has a drawer with seed packets and recipe cards.

Stranger Exchange boxes are also appearing, asking people to take or leave items of interest. In Boston the first such library, a repurposed newspaper box, has featured such items as CD mixes, hand drawn maps, batteries, party invitations, and artwork.

These free-standing libraries have a precedent in the UK, where a phone booth was turned into a 24 hour library,recently followed by a phone booth library in New York.

And a non-profit called Little Free Library aims to establish thousands of new libraries (no bigger than large bird feeders) all over the world.  It has inspired people everywhere, like 82-year-old Bob Cheshier, whose goal was to get little libraries outside of all 71 elementary schools in the Cleveland district. Teachers and kids loved him. He died recently, only partway to that goal, but the community is carrying on his vision.

The process is simple.

  • Figure out where you’d like to place a Little Free Library. A community garden, bike path, civic center, or your front yard?
  • Determine who will be the steward of the Little Free Library.
  • Decide if you’ll build it or order it pre-made to decorate as you choose. You may choose to endow it for someone else (tax deductible) or set it up to honor a certain person, place, or organization.
  • Build support. You may want to find business or civic sponsorship, host a design contest, and in other ways spread the word about your Little Free Library.
  • Contact Little Free Library to register your library on the map, get updates, and more
  • Enjoy. Encourage people to visit, keep it stocked, and watch how sharing affects your neighborhood.

I hope traditional libraries as we know and love them will always exist. They are vital, vibrant institutions ready to be an important part of every person’s life.

But these smaller exchanges actually enlarge our potential. They foster connections between us each time we share, lend, and collaborate. They’re another way of making our communities work.

More Community-Building Inspiration

Engage the Window Box Effect

Bring Kids Back to the Commons

Front Porch Forum

i-Neighbors

Better Together: Restoring the American Community

The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods

All That We Share

community building through books, neighbor to neighbor, micro library, book sharing, birdhouse library,

It Really Does Take A Village

takes a village to raise a child, don't raise children alone, parenting in isolation, isolated mother, community supported parenting,

onurrus.deviantart.com

 

You’ve heard the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” You’ve probably also noticed slap backs like, “I’ve seen the village and it’s not raising my kids.”

If we actually consider the proverb we see the wisdom it contains. Throughout nearly all eras of human history, parents weren’t isolated from a supportive network of other people. Grandparents, siblings, cousins, and friends not only nurtured children, they made good parenting much easier. When a baby cried there were other arms to carry it or carry on the mother’s tasks as she nursed. When a toddler played there were other eyes keeping watch. When a child was ready to learn there were people available to show him how to fashion reeds into a basket, to fish in the river, to tan hides, to choose the right plants to make medicines. When a teen sought role models there were many to emulate, people who had been guiding forces her whole life. Children grew up with an invaluable sense of connection to kinfolk and community.

Today we don’t benefit from the educational richness of traditional village life where children can see and take part in the real work necessary to sustain life. Few of us live near extended family members. But we can foster the development of our own “villages” in at least three ways. Here’s how it worked for me.

1. Establish a supportive network.

When my first child arrived I didn’t know another soul mothering a newborn. Although my parenting and life choices were far different than my mother’s, I found myself calling her nearly every day. It was comforting to talk to someone who cared that I’d been up all night, even if I had to filter out suggestions like feeding rice cereal to a newborn. I also started attending a nearby Le Leche League group to be around other mothers with small babies. There I found women who shared ideas, laughter, and lightly used baby clothes.

When we began homeschooling, once again I felt isolated. All my friends’ children were school bound. So I linked up with several homeschooling groups. Online is great but in-person is better in dozens of ways. My new homeschooling buddies and I had approaches to learning that spanned the spectrum from unschooling to school-at-home, but our lively conversations veered away from judgment. We cared about each other, looking forward to field trips and park days as much as our kids. We particularly enjoyed the way our kids’ unique curiosities blended, creating the kind of quirky fun so typical of homeschooled kids.

2. Create a “chosen” extended family.

Sure, I felt closer to my parents once I became a mother, but I also needed to expand my tribe. The first woman I met with a newborn became like a sister to me. We didn’t always agree on politics or religion but it didn’t matter. As more children came into both our families we watched each other’s kids, exchanged household items, went on day trips, and supported each other through crises.

My group of parent-friends expanded. This made it easy to take turns carpooling and babysitting. It also made for wonderfully boisterous get-togethers. My extended family also included a group of women who called themselves “crones,” new farming friends, and an elderly Scottish bagpipe instructor. These people cast all sorts of light in our lives.

3. Develop rich connections in the community.

When I moved it took a year to meet the people across the street. It was not an overtly friendly place. I was determined to make it into a real neighborhood. I invited people over for potlucks, Halloween parties, and all sorts of kid-centric fun. When new families moved in, I greeted them with homemade goods and an invite to my next event. It became a place where my kids felt known and accepted. One son learned small engine repair from a retired man who liked to tinker, another son liked to visit the guy a few doors down who sculpted in stone, my daughter sang impromptu operas in the front yard without a moment’s self-consciousness.

We stretched to make community connections as well. We struck up conversations that turned into remarkable learning experiences, giving us access to experts in all sorts of fields. My kids have spent years volunteering in Red Cross, recreation programs, wildlife rescue, and more. We make our home part of a larger village, for example hosting people from overseas, running a food co-op, and holding social action meetings. Like our home, the community became a place where my children’s interests were nourished. We have a village now. Whatever direction we extend a hand, we find a friendly hand waiting

Village building resources.

*Get in touch with family members, near or far. Reach out for support even if it doesn’t come in the exact flavor you’d prefer.

*Connect with other parents at the park, playgroups, and nature preserve. Build mutually supportive networks by exchanging your time and talents.

*Join groups that sustain your interests in a positive way. Ask for information about homeschooling groups and programs at your public library. If you are nursing a child, try your local Le Leche League chapter.  Consider joining the Holistic Moms Network. Find or start any sort of group on Meetup.com, from a stroller-pushing-dog-walking get-together to a kids’ chess club. 

*Enjoy the sense of belonging found in active membership in a church, charity, outdoor group, or any organization where families are welcome.

*Establish connections by becoming “regulars.” You may choose to go out for breakfast each Saturday at the same locally owned place where the staff knows your kids. You may help out at a CSA farm as a family. You’ll also feel more at home in your community through regular visits to your library, recreation center, and park.

*Be the neighbor you’d like to have. Extend kindness and warmth as you get to know people. Perform acts of service along with your kids, whether shoveling the driveway of an elderly neighbor or volunteering with Meals on Wheels. Even the smallest children can perform acts of kindness.

*Develop a tradition of community service. There are plenty of ways for kids, toddler to teen, can volunteer.  And help them get involved in civic affairs, clubs, and community organizations. They’re creating their own place in the village too.

it takes a village, community building for families,  isolated parents, parent friendships,

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25 Ways To Spread Some Kindness

Image: SweetOnVeg’s flickr photostream

1. Take your compliments about an employee to management. Chances are you’ll never see the impact. Chances are, it’ll be greater than you imagine.

2. Give up a great parking space for the car behind you. Parking farther away simply gives you more exercise.

3. Call an elderly relative or neighbor once a week to chat. You may think you’re enriching that person’s life. They’re enriching yours too.

4. Hold the door open for the person behind you.

5. Write a thank you note. To see the powerful impact this practice can have, check out A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life.

6. Write an anti-thank you. Sure, it seems counter-intuitive but it’s a way of using a  negative experience to help others.

7. Leave money in vending machines, especially in hospitals and detention centers.

8. Leave a positive review for a local business on Merchant Circle, ThinkLocal, or Yelp.

9. Listen. You know how it feels when someone really listens to you. They look into your eyes, they react to your words, and you feel understood. Check your listening skills against the Scale of Attuned Responses.

10. Research shows that newborns bond with parents using scent. Help out by knitting or crocheting a crib blanket via Blankets For Deployed Daddies. The new dad transfers his scent by sleeping with it in his pillowcase for several nights, then sends it home in a sealed bag.

11. Give genuine compliments. You might want to challenge yourself to give compliments to five or ten people a day. It keeps you on the lookout for truth and beauty. Tell a clerk she has a lovely voice, a child that his smile made your day, a loved one that their eyes are beautiful.

12. That kid who keeps hanging around, looking as you grill dinner or wanting to talk while you wash the car? He may be longing for encouragement. Even a few kind words may be the kind of mentoring he needs.

13. Help budding entrepreners through Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Make your money go farther by lending to a Kiva project.

14. Greet new people on your street with a small gift such as a houseplant or plate of cookies. The neighbors you’ve never met? Try online resources to connect such as i-neighbors or front porch forum.

15. Give gifts that do some good.

16. See an act of aggression? Get involved even if it seems like none of your business. That’s a kindness too.

17. Set books free. Donate them to a good cause (a nearby school, your library’s book sale?) or leave them ala Book Crossing to find new readers.

18. Donate pet food to the nearest animal shelter. While you’re there, offer to walk a few dogs.

19. Patronize kids’ car washes and lemonade stands.

20. Be aware of newcomers to your workplace, school, church or other organization. Make a point of greeting them and introducing them to others.

21. Keep duplicates of your child’s toys and books in the diaper bag. When you encounter fussy children, offer an extra to their parents.

22. Smile. Find out 10 ways this face stretcher benefits you as well as those on the receiving end.

23. Donate blood. One pint of blood can save up to three lives.  

24. Designate a tiny container as your family’s Pass It Forward box. Tuck it somewhere one member of the family will find it (under the bed pillow works) with a little surprise inside (a loving note, a handmade coupon for an unexpected perk, some chocolates, a drawing, a map of a place you’re going that day, a compliment). That person is expected to put something else in the box and leave it for another family member, so kindness can circle around and around.

25. Set a good example, be kind to yourself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FTXMTptqGwI

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Bringing Kids Back To The Commons

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Surely my baby was as good as a dog.

I’d read that nursing home residents benefited enormously from contact with therapy dogs. During and after dog visits these elders were more alert and in better moods. So I figured, why not bring my baby to a nursing home?

I contacted a nursing home around the corner. The administrator was enthusiastic. Then I talked my Le Leche League friends into forming a nursing home-based playgroup for our infants and toddlers. They were somewhat wary, but agreed to give it a try. Finally I got a local store to donate a carpet remnant for our little ones to crawl and play on. Between visits, the nursing home could roll it up for storage. We were ready.

We met regularly at that nursing home for several years. Our babies grew into toddlers, the elders became our friends. Residents’ families and staff members often told us that our visits stimulated memories, generated activity, even inspired people who were mostly mute to say a few words. We were awed. Something as simple as our presence, sitting on the carpet playing with our children, made a difference to people whose once full lives were now constricted. We benefited too. We learned the value of advice given by people older than our grandparents. And we noticed how completely our toddlers accepted the physical and mental differences around them with natural grace.

I’m still not sure why the very old and young are kept apart from life on the commons. Vital and engaged communities are made up of all ages. And children have fewer opportunities to take an active part than almost any adult. This shortchanges everyone.

Throughout history, the young of our species have learned by getting involved. Children long to take on real responsibilities and make useful contributions. This is how they advance in skill and maturity. That is, unless we restrict them to child-centered activities.

Young people are also drawn to seek mentors. They want to see how all sorts of people handle crises, start new enterprises, settle disputes, and stay in love. But today’s young people are largely kept from meaningful engagement with the wider community. They’re segregated by age not only in day care and school but also in most spheres of recreation, religion, and enrichment. When we keep kids from purposeful and interesting involvement with people of all ages they are pushed to find satisfaction in other (often less beneficial) ways. Meanwhile, our communities are deprived of their youthful energy and innovative outlook.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There are ways to reconnect children with our communities.

  1. Involve children by giving them real input and responsibility in civic groups, churches, co-ops, CSA’s, arts organizations, clubs, and neighborhood organizations. What about a child who is a dedicated rock enthusiast but the local lapidary club only accepts adult members? Propose a joint adult/child membership, giving that child the same (age factored) opportunities to build social capital in the club. A similar approach can be taken with organizations that refuse to take youthful volunteers. Offer to give your time in partnership with the child, a two-for-one volunteer bargain. Adult advocates are often necessary to pave the way for genuine youth involvement in many groups.
  2. Give children contact with the workaday world. They need to know people with a range of hobbies and careers. Seek out those who are passionate about chemistry, bird watching, farming, the Civil War, engineering, astronomy,  geology, blacksmithing, wood carving, well, you get the idea. Something vital is transmitted when one person’s enthusiasm sets off a spark of interest in a child. We’re rarely turned down when we ask to learn from others. People who love what they do can’t help but inspire kids and, they often tell me, the kids reignite their hope for the future of their work.
  3. Help local businesses tune in to children’s interests. For example, a bakery might hang children’s art on the walls, make meeting space available for a kids’ chess club, host Invent A Cookie contests, open the kitchen for tours, offer apprenticeships to aspiring young pastry chefs, teach parent-child baking classes, invite speakers to explain the science of yeast and flour, give cupcakes as prizes for youth community volunteer hours, etc. Businesses that are truly engaged in this way inspire loyal customers, they also enliven the community.
  4. Create age-bridging partnerships, as we did with babies and nursing home residents. Non-profit organizations are great places to start. One successful program called Girlfriend Circle started due to complaints. A group of women at a senior center often told a volunteer that they had no hope for the future because children “nowadays” are rude. The volunteer offered to set up a tea party for the ladies that included her daughters and their friends. At that first event the girls were seated between their older hostesses. Everyone enjoyed a lesson in napkin origami. Then they took part in a Q&A to learn about one another. After sharing refreshments both age groups were eager to meet again. The Girlfriend Circle met bi-monthly for several years, finding their friendships instructive and rewarding.
  5. Include young people in civic affairs, giving them genuine input into programs and policies. This works in Hampton, Virginia. Young people take leadership roles by holding conferences and open forums, advising municipal divisions, and helping to run the Hampton Youth Teen Center. City administration also includes a Youth Commission, with 24 youth commissioners, 3 youth planners, and one youth secretary–all high school age.
  6. Develop a tradition of service, starting at an early age. Need ideas? Here are 40 ways kids can volunteer, toddler to teen.

This comes full circle for me, right back to dogs and volunteering. A boy who had been a pint-sized member of the play group we held at the nursing home talked his family into raising puppies to be trained as service dogs. By the time he was 12 years old, this boy gave promotional talks about this program to clubs and schools. I attended one of his speeches. He started off with some anecdotes about exasperating puppies. Then he went on to describe the generosity and hope his family felt each time they attended graduation ceremonies for fully trained dogs, ready to serve. I tend to think community involvement is a path to wholeness. I’m convinced it has a lot to do with this boy’s smile.

Portions of this piece excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Guerrilla Encouragement Efforts

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Chances are at some point in your life you’ve received encouragement from someone you didn’t know well or even know at all. It may have been a tiny gesture but it came at the right time.

~Maybe a note left in a library book serendipitously answered a question you’d been mulling over.

~Maybe a store clerk commented on how wonderfully inquisitive your child was just when you were despairing of her constant questions.

~Maybe something as simple as a stranger’s thoughtful compliment boosted your flagging spirits.

Such instances feel as if they’re meant to happen, stretching our perspective beyond the ordinary and helping us pause, contemplate, and renew the way we see our lives. Often they inspire us to spread the same feeling of encouragement to others.

I’ve had plenty of those moments. That’s why when my kids were very small we had a secret indulgence—-guerrilla encouragement efforts. Let’s call these GEE for short. They’re similar to the widely known Random Acts of Kindness but for us GEE were specifically focused on encouragement.  Here’s how we proceeded.

The easiest GEE are letting people know the job they do is appreciated. Since my kids were too little to write at that time, occasionally they dictated gratitude notes, like the one my oldest insisted on writing to a particular nurse’s aide he saw each week during nursing home visits. My kids gave homemade cookies to firefighters and freshly picked strawberries to librarians. A few times we were driving through a slow intersection at just the right pace for us to roll down the car window and give a cold bottle of water to a traffic cop. Handing over GEE offerings requires little more than simply saying, “thanks for what you do.” The look on our recipients’ faces filled us with expansiveness, as if the air suddenly became lighter. My kids liked to talk about these moments again and again.

Their favorite GEE giveaway involved grocery store popsicles, a treat normally illicit in our annoyingly make-it-from-scratch household. I let my little ones stand out front with a box of these popsicles. They could barely stand the excitement as the garbage truck rumbled closer and closer. Patiently they waited until the workers had finished upending our garbage cans, then they held out the popsicles shouting “thank you” over the roar of the truck’s grinder.  The guys were more thrilled than any of us anticipated, waving all the way down the street as they hung on the truck with purple, orange and red popsicles in their mouths.

What kept us talking and thinking much longer were GEE for people we would never meet. One time we decorated little film canisters with tiny sticker letters spelling out “treasure” or “for you.” We rolled up fortunes we’d made inside, then filled the canisters with nickels, dimes and quarters. We put them in the diaper bag planning to tuck them out-of-the-way spots for strangers to find. I thought it would take us weeks to locate perfect drop off places but the kids made a quest out of hiding every one the first time we went out. Our canisters ended up at the library, health food store, and park. For weeks afterward my kids speculated about who might have found these little treasures and they told each other stories about the outcomes they envisioned. My daughter announced one could have been found by a lady who needed exactly that amount to buy a kitten (my daughter named the kitten and recounted its adventures as she imagined the scenario). My son decided it one could have been found by a boy who needed to buy a compass to draw maps (and then my son promptly drew a whole series of maps). Although they asked to do this project over and over again, we only did it that once. Secretly I was concerned that the canisters would be tossed as junk before anyone ever opened them. I also had come to rely on household change for necessities, so that moment of largesse was a one time sacrifice.

Another GEE that really captured our imaginations? Talking stones. We were walking along Lake Erie and spied quite a few flat water-washed stones. Perfect surface for an encouraging note. The kids ran around the beach collecting the largest stones. They carefully washed the sand off at the water’s edge and set them out on our beach towel to dry in the sun. I used a permanent marker (although a finer point marker would have let me squeeze more words on each stone). Our plan was to write something encouraging on one side, then leave the stones scattered well above the high tide line. We came up with messages like “you rock” and “everything is just fine” and “be tender.” Schmucky, but it’s hard to think with preschoolers clamoring to redistribute stones in a gleeful reverse scavenger hunt. The kids liked the idea of leaving them for strangers to find and chortled over the idea of stones “talking.” We left that day happily speculating about who might find a stone and what it might mean to them. Quite possibly nothing. Or who knows, one of our stones might have spoken to just the right person.

With all that’s going on in the world, guerilla encouragement efforts seem strange, funny, and innocently optimistic. But each child is born to dance on this beautiful planet that’s turning, turning, turning toward greater hope. GEE, why not?

“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”    Carl G. Jung