I am aging myself here, I was a child in the 1970s. We knocked on doors to ask friends to play, rode bikes unsupervised and stayed out until the street lights came on. Starting in Kindergarten I walked to elementary school with other kids from my street. As a tween, I earned money babysitting and mowing lawns for neighbors. Beyond the neighborhood, I grew up in a small town that had one high school, a yearly Summer Ice Cream Social and 4th of July fireworks. It felt like my parents knew everyone in town. There was a strong sense of community.
Between moving childhood indoors, having daily screen time, more supervision until older ages, the rise of scheduled activities and a shift away from tweens working for others, it is more difficult to provide children this sense of community. Here are a few helpful ideas:
Join a local Moms Club and plan neighborhood playdates – Repeat play with the same children gives them a chance to build friendships. Having neighborhood friends adds to a sense of community. Even better, at least occasionally plan to meet friends at the neighborhood playground.
When your children are young, just getting to know other families with children similar ages can be a lifesaver. It’s helpful to know others share your joys and struggles of parenting and family. It can also be a great way to find and share babysitters, set up co-ops and get to know other community resources.
Get to know and help neighbors – An easy and direct way to build a sense of community is to get to know your neighbors. This means starting up conversations when you walk your dog or check the mailbox. This may mean exchanging holiday cards, shoveling someone’s snowy driveway, taking in their mail or offering to help when there is an illness or new baby.
Attend neighborhood celebrations – An easy and often child friendly way to build a sense of community is to attend neighborhood celebrations. In our current neighborhood this is a Fourth of July street picnic and a Halloween block party.
Attend events and volunteer at church, library and other community events – Each organization is a piece of an overall sense of community. These events and efforts allow you to model connecting to and working well with others. As a parent, you may not know which experience will hold meaning for your child. The idea is to offer a wide variety, highlight the enjoyment or importance and hope this shapes in the long run.
Especially attend and volunteer at school events – Your child’s school provides them a specific community with a whole new set of caregivers (get to know them) and child oriented activities. The more you can work at and enjoy school activities together, the better. Not only does this build a sense of cohesive support and community, it may bolster academic motivation and long term outcomes.
Participate in local clean-ups – Working with others and taking physical care of the community is a great way to feel connected. Community or street clean-ups may be organized by your local park, church, school or neighborhood. This may also be a facility work day. Each year our preschool does a Big Dig. This is a day the families work together on planting flowers, mulching and other lawn care at the school.
Encourage your child to join scouts – Both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts provide and challenge children to participate in groups and later individual service projects. Brownies and boy scouts may take fieldtrips to local venues. Older scouts may organize events to benefit the community directly.
Highlight the Work of Others – For younger children you might sing These are the People in Your Neighborhood from Sesame Street (version 2 or version 3) and highlight the roles each plays. For older children you might discuss the roles, responsibilities and impact of others in the community.
Really Explore Your Community – It can be refreshing to step back and take a look at all that is available for families in your community. This includes museums, county parks, recreation centers, hiking trails, art and dance facilities and venues, sports teams and festivals. If you are in the Northern Virginia area here is a post with staycation ideas.
Encourage Children to Make Maps – Children’s sense of community may grow from thinking about their surroundings in a new way. Spatial reasoning and symbol association skills benefit from making and reading maps. With preschool age children, you might map their playgrounds, the grocery store or their house. As children get older they can map their neighborhood and their larger community.
Volunteer Together – Volunteering with your children can be a valuable way to build a larger sense of community and recognize the needs of others. As a family we rung the bell for the Salvation Army several years. Through their middle school, we served dinner at the local Catholic Charities kitchen. In high school, they’ve participated with a food pantry. These experiences gave my children a new view on connecting with others in the community. Here is an article about family volunteer opportunities in the Northern VA area.
Give Together – Once a year you might participate in a toy drive or a gently used coat donation program. You might adopt a child or family to support through a local shelter or church program. It’s helpful to have your children participate in the process and make them aware of these community connections.