A Community of Sticks

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Community building in childcare is important because it cultivates connection among the people involved. Experts in well-being name connection and belonging as one of the best ways humans feel healthy and happy. The communities we belong to co-construct our learning, and act as a catalyst for our continued growth.

How do we build community in our programs?

In an article titled “Values and Principles of the Reggio Emilia Approach”, Lella Gandini described community education. “Education has to focus on each child, not considered in isolation, but seen in relation with the family, with other children, with the teachers, with the environment of the school, with the community, and with the wider society”.

Often in programs with school age children, community building begins with group games. While tossing a ball and playing catch, children learn the names of the other children, and something new about each individual. While this is a simple way to get to know one another and start to build community, it lacks depth.

Looking for a way to start our community building differently, I remembered a project where we painted large flat sticks to tell a story. My thinking was to have the children paint a stick, and then share a story as a way to become familiar with each other. Gathering materials for the project. I found a collection of large tongue depressors, small brushes and tempera paint. The children were invited to create at least one stick as their contribution to the project. The children were excited to paint their story and share it with others.

I later discovered that some children were feeling shy about painting their story. As the project was winding down, I approached the children, who had not yet participated, and invited them to create a painted stick. At the end of the week we gathered in a large circle of friends. As we listened and shared our work together the children and teachers were learning more about each other. The finished sticks were displayed on a table for all the children, parents and visitors to enjoy.

Two weeks later, the children proposed that we do something with the sticks instead of displaying them on a table. Someone suggested that we create a new project with the sticks so they could have another purpose. The group went about thinking and wondering what to do next, when an old rectangular piece of art board gave us an idea. We decided to make a community art piece out of the painted sticks.

The children created an installation by taking the painted sticks and gluing them to the art board. The process continued for many days, as different children contributed to the work. When the work was complete we celebrated and hung our installation in a special spot where all the visitors to our program could see it.

Over the course of the school year we created many other projects. As the older projects went away and were replaced by new work, the painted stick installation remained on the wall. When this cycle kept repeating, I wondered if this particular art piece had a different meaning for the children than other work they created. On occasion I would observe the children looking up and pointing out the stick they made for the project. Then they would share a story with a friend about how we created it.

What I believe the children remembered was not a specific year or time, just the fact we all came together and created. I believe what we created was not of sticks and glue, but a connection with another person, with a group, and with a friend. We created a symbol of what we can do if we work together.

Now, two years later, if you walk into our space and look up you will see the painted stick installation on the wall, which represents our community and all of the work we do together.

 How do you build sustained community in your program?