Bringing Kids Back To The Commons

involve kids in community, end age segregation, youth volunteers, business engagement with community, non-profit engagement with community, babies in nursing homes, daycare in nursing home,

Image by

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 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. (Here’s how to set up your own playgroup in a nursing home.)

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’d once 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 know community involvement is a path to wholeness. I’m convinced it has a lot to do with this boy’s smile too.

Portions of this piece excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Fun Theory

CC by 2.0 takazart

CC by 2.0 takazart

I’m not aware of any official Fun Theory in the field of learning. But fun shimmers under the surface of motivation and focus like a very big fish. And the fish named Fun shouldn’t be ignored.

I lifted the term Fun Theory from an old Volkswagen campaign. One of their videos shows busy commuters choosing an escalator instead of a staircase. People are rarely motivated to do otherwise. But when the same stairs were transformed into a giant electronic piano sixty-six percent more people chose to hop, dance and run up those musical steps. Fun works. (It also sends the Volkswagen logo around the world in a great example of viral marketing.)

It’s no surprise that pleasure is motivating, although what one person finds enjoyable may not be remotely engaging for the next person.

That’s the key. Fun is highly individual. It can’t be easily pre-packaged, even though promoters of textbooks, curricula, and enrichment programs assert their products do just that.

You can tell when educational materials and experiences don’t engage the young people in your life. They exhibit, shall we say, obvious symptoms. I won’t list them here. These symptoms tend to cause us all kinds of angst.

A child’s stubborn insistence that learning be meaningful and interesting is actually a sign of positive selfhood. We need to pay close attention to each child to really see what sparks enthusiasm, evokes awe, sharpens focus, builds on interests, and challenges abilities. That’s what advances learning.

The elements that make an activity or interest compelling for any one person can’t be neatly summed up, nor should they. A person is too complex to reduce to a List of Handy Motivators. But you might want to consider such factors if you’d like to understand why your child prefers to do things his or her way, or why some enriching activities “work” and others don’t. Below you’ll find brief notes about some of the factors that make learning intrinsically pleasurable and interesting. Think of your child as you read over the list. Think of yourself too. You’ll recognize many unique ways that lively, engaged learning happens quite naturally.

                Trial and Error 

Learning is fun when errors don’t feel like failures. Watch a group of friends figure out what tools and design elements they’ll use to make bracelets from a cast-off metal objects. Their initial results will likely be both positive and negative. Their mistakes will help to guide and refine their progress. Thomas Edison said of trial and error, “Results! Why man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.”

When your child is building a fort out of branches she may experiment with several approaches. This open-ended process allows her to repeat successes and learn from errors, getting ever closer to the desired result. Trial and error often pulls the learner forward to greater mastery. It’s also tremendously enjoyable.


Full engagement in any pursuit that is meaningful to the individual may not sound like a prescription for fun. But it is, because it tends to lead to what is called flow:  a sense of focusing so fully that we lose sense of time, discomfort, even self.

Artists and athletes aren’t the only ones who experience flow, children easily merge into this state. A child may experience flow while engaging in make-believe, drawing, swinging on a backyard swing, playing the guitar, fixing a bicycle, even organizing a shelf.

You may not be able to predict what has meaning for your child, but chances are it fuels learning. Your daughter’s fascination with horses may lead her to equine-related mathematics, history and science. Her learning is enlivened with wonder and purpose. That absorption is also fun.


Discovery is highly motivating and feels quite a bit like fun. It lures babies to put everything into their mouths. It propels us to try new music, peer around forbidden corners, travel to distant places.

When a friend brings up an obscure bit of information, your preteen may check it out later only to find an unexpectedly engaging exploration through subjects that never interested her before. Or perhaps your son’s curiosity is piqued by a new venture he wants to try like making homemade cheese. The project opens up to ever wider explorations such as homesteading skills, the claims of raw milk advocates, and recipes using artisan cheeses. For most of us independent discovery has the greatest allure.


What is new and unexpected heightens attention and activates all kinds of interest. That’s why marketers are constantly coming out with newer versions of the same thing. Novelty leads readily to exploration or play. By itself, novelty wears off quickly. (Those commuters will tire of the musical stairs and probably go back to using the escalator.)

You can rely on something new to stimulate interest. Just remember that too much reliance on novelty doesn’t help children build their own deeper resources of attention and interest.


Play isn’t “just” for fun. It’s an essential component of learning. Stuart Brown, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
said in an interview, “…evidence continues to accumulate that the learning of emotional control, social competency, personal resiliency and continuing curiosity plus other life benefits accrue largely through rich developmentally appropriate play experiences.”  Unstructured free play is particularly important. We already know it’s fun.

                Direct Experience

Hands-on efforts make learning come alive with pleasure and satisfaction. Frank R. Wilson notes in  The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture that brain and hand use have always been connected. When a young child is put in charge of preparing vegetables for a stir fry dinner his efforts may not be entirely helpful, but the sensory experience of washing, chopping, and tasting offer him much more than growing competence in meal preparation. The sensory experiences enhance comprehension and lock in learning. When a child expresses interest in puppetry she may want the opportunity to make puppets, stage puppet shows, and go to puppet guild meetings. The more fully involved a child can be the more direct (and lasting) his or her learning will be.


Challenges are fun as well as educational because they keep us right at the edge of our competence, pushing us on to the next level (exactly why video games are so compelling). A ten-year-old may enjoy the logical challenge of debating his older brother, the practical difficulties of planning and filming his own scary movie, the physical and social risks of showing off at the skating rink. These self-selected activities push him to advance a whole range of abilities. Challenges keep us too absorbed to grin but for our own good reasons.


There are plenty of other “fun in learning” factors such as relationship development, competition, sensory pleasure—surely you can think of more. All these elements are intertwined so completely that they only make sense when we see them as connected.

I think that’s why we need to pay attention to what’s fun about learning. Yes it’s different for each person. But what’s universal is that each of us is capable of fascination, excitement, and wonder. Why fish around for methods to motivate and sustain a child’s attention when joy is right there, showing us the way?

Portions of this post excerpted from Free Range Learning.


Get Involved When It’s None Of Your Business

peace through non-violence, take a stand on violence, intervene in conflict, conflict resolution,

          Working in a retail job, you think you’ve become accustomed to bad behavior on the part of children as well as parents. But you are appalled to see a mother use an umbrella to spank a small boy.

Will intervening threaten the child or endanger your job?

Walking through a grocery store parking lot, you notice a crying toddler in the grocery cart and a woman screaming at the child as she loads packages in her car. She slaps the child’s face and arms as you walk past.

If you say anything will you make it worse?  


Looking out your apartment window you see a young man standing next to a motorcycle, pushing and yelling at a teenaged girl from the building who seems to be his girlfriend.

Would the police consider this abuse if you called?


Leaving work later than usual on a wintry evening you have the feeling you’re being followed. As you turn a corner you see an ill-dressed youth close behind you. He holds out a gun and asks for money.

Are there any options that don’t leave a victim?


Driving past a cluster of youths on a city street, you realize that they are clubbing a boy with a piece of wood. It’s safer for you to continue in traffic, but you want to defend this teen from his aggressors.

Can your heart and head agree on a course of action?

peace through pacifism, tactics of non-violence,

Violence is familiar. It’s highlighted in news, movies and video games. It erupts in our homes or homes nearby, even if few people admit it. It’s insidious and damaging. Violence at all levels, from the personal to the global, is highly ineffective in creating lasting positive change.

Yet we know very little about nonviolence. We may be aware of Mohandas Gandhi’s satyagraha. This philosophy, which Gandhi called “soul force,” inspired the passive resistance successfully used in the U.S. civil rights movement and the healing honesty of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But most people don’t think these approaches are relevant. In fact, pacifism is often confused with those who are passive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nonviolence requires a level of conviction and inner strength that makes violence look easy.

Nonviolence doesn’t imply lack of anger or conflict. Strong emotions like anger can be a catalyst for change; rallying us to become more aware, to take action or to seek help. Conflict is an inevitable part of human interaction. Dealing with conflict constructively, creatively, and with mutual regard lets conflict serve a useful purpose.

The tactics of nonviolence have worked throughout history. But, as it’s often said, history is written by the victors. Scholar Antony Adolf writes in Peace: A World History, “The champions of peace, momentous and everyday, intellectual and activist, expert professional and lay, have for too long been considered exceptions that prove this rule, when in actuality without their efforts there may not have been a history to live, let alone write.”

Nonviolent principles work today, although they continue to be little known. According to the Human Security Report, from the University of British Columbia, peacemaking efforts by the United Nations as well as voluntary activism continue to have a powerful impact. Although little reported by the media, the world has seen a significant decline in violence. The overall number of armed conflicts has declined by 40% in the last 16 years with the deadliest conflicts dropping by 80%. Three decades ago 90 countries were governed by authoritarian regimes; now fewer than 30 suffer this oppression.

volunteers save the world, non-violence in action, peacemaking, pacifism tactics,

The efforts of individuals may make the biggest difference. Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World about the efforts of caring people everywhere around the world. Before the abolitionist movement there were pitifully few groups working on behalf of others. Since that time the number of people collaborating for the greater good has grown at an unprecedented rate. Now there are over a million organizations seeking environmental sustainability, social justice, cultural preservation, and peace. Hawkin says that never before in history have there been so many people working on behalf of others.

In fact the success of humankind is based on peaceful person to person, group to group interaction. The unwritten span of prehistory makes up 99% of our time on earth. Most anthropologists affirm that cooperation was pivotal for survival during this long stage, when people lived in nomadic hunter-gatherer bands. A lone human would not last long. No claws, fangs or heavy fur protected them. Interdependence was key. Together our forebears developed language, healing arts, and methods of procuring food. Cooperative efforts in child rearing, protection from predators, and shelter from the elements gave them a survival edge. This entire period of our development was characterized by generally peaceable human interactions. There’s minimal evidence of warfare in this span of prehistory. Planned aggression against others likely developed around the start of agriculture.

From the larger perspective of time we are barely out of prehistory, still adjusting to the complexities of civilization. As anthropologist Douglas P. Fry notes in Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace, cooperation and empathy accurate represent our species. Violence is not “human nature.” We flourish best with gentle nurturance and continued cooperation.

violence tends to escalate, non-violent tactics,

So what’s the first nonviolence principle we should know? De-escalation. A major characteristic of violence, verbal as well as physical, is that it tends to escalate.  It is most easily reversed at the beginning and becomes progressively more difficult to stop as it spirals into more intense violence. Those who study the effects of intervention in violent situations have found when others object or actively intervene, their efforts tend to slow or stop the violence.  Dr. Ervin Staub, who survived under Nazi rule, reports in The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence, that the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Nazis in Germany began their campaigns of genocide with small persecutions which citizens allowed to continue.  He reports that action by “bystanders” (those who are not victim or perpetrator) empowers the victim and diminishes the power of the aggressor. But ignoring the suffering of others allows the violence to escalate.

That’s true in our daily lives as well. When we deal with signs of conflict right away, firmly and with compassion, we don’t permit problems to get worse. That’s just one principle of nonviolence. The more we know about nonviolence, the wider the range of options we have to choose from in each situation.

Personally Violent Approach                  Personally Nonviolent Approach

Avoid or ignore signs of conflict.                       Speak up early, before conflict escalates.

Suppress problems. Allow tension

to build.

Slander others, incite anger,                              Show positive regard for others

distort truth.                                                        as well as oneself. Maintain honesty.

Highlight differences, provoke                          Find common ground, ways to agree.


Show impatience                                                Act with patience and high regard for the

                                                                              process. Recognize change may be  slow.

Attack the other person, typically                   Be open to ideas, different perspectives,

escalating situation.                                           possible changes.

Inflict suffering on others.                                Refuse to inflict suffering even at one’s own 


Aim to “win” or destroy others.                      Accept only equitable solutions fair to all.

Ends justifies the means.                                 Process important as outcome. 

Expectations not fitting circumstances.          Act with integrity and understanding,

                                                                              instilling  respect and empathy.  

                                                                               Operate with openness, justice, compassion.  

What about situations you might encounter at work, in a parking lot, in your neighborhood, while driving or walking down the street? All of the circumstances described at the beginning were actual experiences. Fortunately the people facing these situations had studied nonviolence and they decided to take a stand.

The store clerk who witnessed a mother using an umbrella to hit a child intervened quickly. She stepped next to the mother and said quietly, “You have to stop that right now.”

The mother was furious. She protested that she had the right to discipline her child. The clerk agreed, keeping her voice low and calm, “Yes, you do. But how you do it makes a difference.”

She listened as the child’s mother continued to argue with her, then said, “Can I tell you something? I’m sure my mother took good care of me. But she got mad easily and hit me a lot. Not one person ever stuck up for me. When I grew up I decided I’d never speak to her again and I haven’t. I’m not saying it’s the same for you and your child, but I just had to say something.”

The mother responded by describing to the clerk the many ways she was a good mother to her son. The tone of the woman’s voice as well as her attitude changed as she focused on her parenting strengths. On her way out of the store she picked up the child and said, “Momma loves you even when she’s mad, you know that don’t you?”


The man about to walk past the woman slapping her toddler in the parking lot had an idea. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a ten dollar bill and covertly dropped it near them. He made a show of leaning over and finding the bill.  He held it out to the woman and asked if it might be hers.

Although she insisted it was not her money he gave it to her, considering it money well spent. As they spoke he made some positive observations about her child. He sympathized with her difficulty, mentioning that when his kids were young he found it easiest to take along a few snacks and small toys to keep them busy. They talked and by the time he walked away the woman and toddler were both smiling. His simple act stopped the violence and for that moment he’d brought a positive element to the situation.


The neighbor who witnessed a motorcyclist pushing and yelling at his girlfriend decided he couldn’t stand by. He walked casually out of his apartment and just as he was about to pass the couple he paused. When the boyfriend noticed his glance the neighbor made an admiring comment about the bike. His attention disrupted the abuse. He and the young man struck up a brief conversation about motorcycles. His observations on treating the bike well may just as easily have been about treating a person with loving attention. By interrupting the abuse he offered the girl time to leave, if she chose, and he hoped it established a rapport that might be helpful if the girl wanted to talk at a later time.


The commuter walking late along a cold, dark street confronted by a gunman was afraid he might lose his wallet, coat, and perhaps his life.  He also empathized with the poorly dressed youth. Ignoring the gun and disrupting the man’s plan to make him a victim, he said, “It’s cold. Why don’t you take my jacket?”

As he took off the coat he kept talking about the wintry weather. He offered to purchase food, even give the young man money. The aggressor was confounded by the man’s generosity and lack of fear. Acting embarrassed, he refused the food, money and jacket. The commuter insisted the youth take the jacket as a gift. He may have gone home without his own jacket but he transformed a potential crime into an encounter of compassion.


The woman who drove past teens pummeling another youth with a piece of wood chose to stop her car in traffic. Standing at her open car door she called to them, telling them to stop what they were doing. They were surprised but held their ground. One jeered at her asking why she would care about some kid who was a stranger to her while the others laughed. She answered that she cared about all of them. And then she said she would stop if she saw any of them being hurt.

“Next time I might need to stop for you,” she told the youth who questioned her. Anger defused, they walked away. She left when she saw the youth who’d been hurt get up and walk in the other direction.


These people chose action over despair.  Their creative, unique solutions served as peaceful de-escalations of violent situations.  They may not have eliminated the causes or “solved” the issue but they pointed a way out.  Making a stand does make a difference.

Our anger and our concerns about violence can be shaped into purposeful, peaceful action. This is the greatest antidote to despair.

conflict resolution, de-escalation of violence, teaching non-violence, pacifism,

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Natural Life Magazine.

How To Time Travel

time travel, memory is time travel, storing memory, preserving memory,

Wikimedia Commons

My oldest is getting married. Yes, that outs me as old enough to have become a mother the year I graduated from college.

That itself seems strange, because I feel pretty much the same as I did at 14, back when I used to sneak out of the house wearing a halter top under whatever mom-approved top I wore over it. It’s such a distinct feeling that when I walk past my reflection in a store window I don’t instantly recognize the person hustling along, the woman carrying my purse and wearing my jacket. I have to remind myself, that’s me. My skinny insecure 14-year-old self is history.

Why can I access that time in my life so easily? Because I really remember being 14. Everything was new. Testing out the forbidden, suffering daily angst, uncovering adult hypocrisy, lying on my bedroom floor memorizing music lyrics. And vivid memory is the key to time travel.

In essence, our lives are made from what we notice and remember. When you look back at any particular phase of your life what you recall is constructed from what captured your attention, particularly those times when your emotions as well as your senses were engaged.

It’s a nasty surprise to realize how few truly full memories we manage to form. That’s because we only efficiently latch on to memories when we pay attention. We’re more likely to do so when the experience is new. That’s probably why we seek out emotionally charged thrills (roller coasters or white water rafting), get so much out of travel, and remember firsts like our first kiss or first attempt driving a stick shift.

The emotional and sensory experience of one’s first baby makes for lasting memories. Ordinary moments remain imprinted on my body as well as my mind from my son’s early years: a newborn slumped against me in sleep, a toddler crouching on sturdy legs to watch a beetle, an inquisitive child taking everything apart. As I watch this tall and capable young man go through the many rituals surrounding his upcoming wedding, I feel as if I exist in multifaceted time, sensing the layers of his childhood simultaneously with the present.

I know it’s easy to miss the simple grandeur all around us. I do it all the time. I get distracted, I multitask, I’m too busy to make eye contact and when I do I might very well be thinking of something else. But we have to live in the fullness of our lives right now. That means engaging in the sights, sounds, tastes, thoughts, and feelings unique to our own experience.

This moment, this day is yours to remember. Pay attention in such a way that you can time travel back to visit it.

And if you’d care to, describe in the comments the sights, sounds, and feelings of a memory that lets you travel in time.