Last fall my kids had a memorable day at our local playground. They met our mayor. Quite a thrilling event in their young lives, yielding much excited conversation as they ran home to tell Todd. “She was really friendly, but she didn’t look like a mayor,” Daniel informed his Dad. Annie was so proud she could hardly speak. It came out later that she assumed our mayor worked daily with Barack Obama.
It wasn’t entirely random that the kids met their mayor that day because it was actually the ribbon cutting ceremony for our new park. We’d taken a long and circuitous path to this point.
A year and a half prior, enough neighbors had sent enough email and made sufficient numbers of phone calls to our Parks Department that a critical mass was finally reached. The Parks Department decided to renovate our broken down playground.
Ours was the only park in Boulder which still had a 1960’s era metal spinning merry-go-round. Remember those? It looked like a huge Lazy Susan which little kids clung to as big kids spun it faster and faster. Our park also contained one of those tall metal slides that burned kids’ bottoms on sweltering summer days. We’d been warned by the Parks Dept., “We’re not fixing the merry-go-round. When it breaks, it goes.” It was already warped on one paint-chipped side.
Half of me knew the merry-go-round was dangerous. I recalled stories from my childhood of kids flying off the edge at top speed or getting their heads stuck between the metal disk and the ground. But my kids LOVED it!
Over all the hours we spent on that structure, we only had one bad experience: the time Stephen, who’d been lying on his 6 year-old tummy watching the ground blur by, suddenly flew off the side like a lawn dart. Luckily he landed in some actual lawn.
Then one day the merry-go-round had vanished, leaving nothing but a small hole in the playground sand. Most likely it broke in some minor way, and under cover of darkness, the Parks Department hauled it away.
Now at last we were getting a new playground! Fliers were pinned and taped everywhere, inviting neighbors to come to a community meeting to discuss their desires for the new park. Stephen and Daniel had definite ideas, and I brought them along to the meeting.
The meeting room was full of adults seated in fold-out chairs facing our Parks Department moderator. As these neighborhood meetings are wont to be, this one was fairly intense. People had distinct visions of what they did and didn’t want.
Daniel and Stephen asked me to voice their top choice, an eight foot basketball hoop on a half court. After I stated their request, a number of neighbors became quite concerned about the noise this would generate and the folks who might gather playing basketball at all hours. Stephen and Daniel’s eyes were wide as they watched and listened to the impassioned discussion.
In the end, the basketball hoop was voted down. Daniel, age 8 at the time, had tears in his eyes and Stephen looked like he was replaying the conversation in his head. The community group moved on to other park-related topics.
As the meeting was coming to a close, I noticed Daniel raising his thin arm as high as he could. I had no idea what he planned to say. When the moderator called on him the room became quiet. Daniel said in a determined voice, “I’d like to recommend a tire swing. I’ve noticed at other parks that kids of all ages play on them. And plus they’re really fun.” Every one smiled and nodded in agreement.
We couldn’t attend the next community playground meeting and, therefore, didn’t know what came of Daniel’s tire swing suggestion. But about a year later when they were installing the actual playground equipment, Daniel came running home to tell us there was indeed a tire swing!
The day he met our mayor, Daniel walked her to the tire swing and retold this story. For adults this would of course be a rather small victory. For Daniel though, it made a big impression. He proposed a good idea and grown-ups had listened.
I used this community meeting experience to talk to the kids about how our government makes decisions. The next time I was writing a letter to our congressional representatives, I showed the kids. After describing the issue I was supporting, I asked if they wanted to add something. It happened to be a topic that they also felt strongly about.
As I mentioned in a previous post, this year for his “Green New Year’s Resolution” Stephen decided he wanted to write our congressional reps about a climate change topic. Two weeks ago he came home from school regaling me with news of an Amtrak train in the Texas region that is partially fueled by beef fat. After telling him I thought this was an urban legend swirling around his middle school, we googled it. Sure enough it was true.
Stephen decided to write our congressman, senators, and new governor to suggest that Colorado should have one of these trains. Only ours shouldn’t be fueled by beef, but by locally grown sugar beets. He told them we could call it the Beet Train.
Stephen looked as proud mailing his congressional letters as Daniel had telling us about the tire swing.
Stephen just received a personally signed letter back from our governor. I love it when they give a special response to kids who have written them.
Guerilla Learning: How to Give Your Kids a Real Education With or Without School, by Grace Llewellyn and Amy Silver. (Thanks for this suggestion Sarah.)
This book offers some creative ideas. I thought the book’s title was one of its best aspects. Mostly it gave me support and motivation for things I’ve already been working on with my kids. However, it lists numerous resources for guidance with this type of parenting or schooling. And who doesn’t love a good dose of support and motivation?