Creating Genuinely Supportive Social Spaces for Young Families
I inherited a children’s class. You may be thinking that this is an odd thing to put in a will, but in this case, the former teachers had simply moved out of town. The class was already scheduled on a weekly basis at the local Bahá’í center. (For all intensive purposes a community center with a children’s room, as Bahá’ís often gather in each others homes for meetings.) The target age group for the class was children under four years old and their parents or caregivers. It was advertised weekly via a local new-moms Facebook group, email and personal invitations to friends and neighbors. The advertisement encouraged parents to come even if they were running late (stating that we’d hang around for a while to chat after the class and let the kids play.)
In the past six months a few people had come, but not many had returned multiple times. Often, no one came.
Essentially it was the structure and skeleton of a children’s class, without the people.
Friday rolled around and off I went to the Bahá’í center, guitar, drum, story books, virtues cards, rhythm instruments, and toddler all squashed neatly in our little car.
It took me three trips to get everything in the door of the center. The door locks took a good five minutes of juggling, jiggling, and key dropping to open. The toddler melted down… …and no one came. But this is a success story, right?
I made a banner image with the class name on it to use for the weekly invitations. Then, I posted the usual Facebook invitation with an added clause: This week’s virtue: KINDNESS!
I planed a lesson around the virtue. It consisted of two books (a couple of my personal favorites):
- The Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry
- Shh, We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton
And five songs:
- Virtues In You by Martin Kerr and Kate Millie
- K-I-N-D-N-E-S-S by Alessandro Giua
- Say Hi by Red Grammer
- Lean on Me by Bill Withers
- The More We Get Together, a traditional folk song (Raffi has an excellent cover)
And that was it.
In the event that someone actually came, at the end of the lesson I planned to ask one of the older children or parents to choose a virtue for the following week from my deck of Virtues Cards. (If you haven’t heard of them, take a minute to check them out, they have many useful resources for parents and teachers alike – Virtues Cards through the Virtues Project online: https://virtuesshop.com )
After my usual weekly, pre-children’s class melt down (my husband is a five-star encourager and can attest to this regular occurrence), a quick prayer and a hug, off the toddler and I went to the Bahá’í center!
This time two one families came. Both new to the class, both a little hesitant but friendly and encouraging. I greeted them enthusiastically and settled right in to start the class. We sang one song and then took a minute to talk about how we practice kindness (e.g. smiling, helping each other, giving hugs, listening to each other, playing together, sharing, etc.) Then more songs and books. They got into it – sharing rhythm instruments with their little ones, clapping along, and (with a little encouragement) making funny animal noises along with the books. The little ones wandered a bit, engaged as they wanted to, and enjoyed the music. At the end of class we picked a card for next week: LOVE. I agreed to tag the parents when I posted the announcement for the next class to Facebook.
Week 3, Challenge Round:
I was encouraged by the positive response to the virtues theme, and set out for the center the next week armed with books and songs about love.
One of the parents from the previous week returned! Then in walked another new mother. This was great! She courageously introduced herself… in sign language. Awesome! I know a little sign and can finger spell, so I introduced myself and fumbled my way through introductions to the others in the room. Then I panicked. The reality finally dawned that here I was, standing with a guitar in hand, knowing a handful of words in sign, wondering how I could possibly make this class engaging and welcoming to a mother who was deaf.
It turned out she was the key to the success of the class. This courageous, contagiously positive, Australian mother jumped in with both feet and made it work. As the weeks went by she taught us signs for many of the songs which provided a key aspect of developmental growth for the little ones and got the parents laughing as they struggled to remember what to do with their hands. The challenge of in-depth communication became a collaborative, unifying effort and as our numbers grew, some parents started bringing laptops or tablets to converse more efficiently. Some downloaded sign apps on their phones and began to practice on their own. Collectively, the result was a shared context of learning and friendship among all the families involved.
As time went on we added a memorization element to the class. Each week we would choose a quote from one of the world’s religions related to the virtue theme and work together to memorize it. Often we used sign. Sometimes we made up our own motions. Either way, the element of movement assisted our efforts to learn and retain the words.
Other essential supporting factors:
Another Bahá’í parent (one of the previous teachers, now commuting a half hour with his two children) attended as regularly as possible, occasionally assisting with songs and being my back-up if I needed to step out of the room for a moment. My confidence was bolstered infinitely by his steadfast presence.
Added support for the class from elders in the community proved useful as parents with multiple children and infants joined our ranks. Two of the semi-retired friends from the neighborhood offered to help. One by opening the center each week so that if I ran late in my scramble to get out of the house, the other parents could get into the center. The other by attending the class to help hold a baby or two, manage my toddler, or just make a new friend and lend an ear to a conversation-starved parent.
Photo credit: Elissa Suhr