Building community in the playground

Schools are banning one popular phrase to help stop children from feeling  left out - Mirror Online

Back to school

Weeks and weeks of preparation and finally you’re ready. The school uniform is on, photos are taken and nerves are calmed. Before you know you’re walking a route that will become like second nature. Soon you’ll know to the minute when you have to leave and who you’ll see on this daily journey.

As I approach the school gates and stand in the queue I am surprised to find my nerves aren’t settled and questions flood my mind. Will she be ok? What if she can’t make friends? What if she’s left sobbing on her own at lunchtime?

I walk home, on my own for the first time in years. I realise the SHE in the questions above are no longer about my daughter, the SHE is me. Its not just the girls walking into the playground. I too am walking into my own metaphorical playground. A playground full of potential friendships, but also a playground full of memories and insecurities.

In the early days the pick ups can be painful. Just because you have kids in the same class, you can’t presume other parents will chat and be friendly. Often there can be long queues, awkward silences as parents are unsure how to interact with one another.

My experience

Unlike most other children our eldest didn’t go to the local pre-school. Before she started we were sent a form. It asked us to state the names of her 3 closest friends, I put n/a. We were starting completely afresh. We didn’t know anyone. We had no friends.

Pretty soon the daily pick up quickly became part of life, but it took awhile for me to feel myself. Some parents were chatting away right from the start and photos on social media showed parties and park dates. But I often wondered how they had found friendship at such speed. I discovered later that that some had known each other for years. Others had found their friends at Pre-school. For me the closeness of these friendships made the isolation feel even more painful. Many parents describe their experience as if they’re back in the playground themselves. Often talking about not fitting in, feelings of isolation, and not being part of a friendship group.

This week we’ve been walking past the Reception kids, watching them start their school life. I must admit I am delighted that we’re past that stage. Five years on, approximately 2000 pick ups later I am a very different person.

When my youngest started, I decided to do things differently. I wondered if it was possible to create a community that was warm, hospitable and inclusive. I wanted to be part of something where we were in this together. Where we had each others backs. Where we looked out for each other and modelled friendship to our kids. So the very first week of term, I did an open invite to all the parents in Reception Year to come round for coffee and chat. About 20 came and we had a great time. We all agreed we’d do it again. The following week someone else offered to be the host. Many of us went round and enjoyed another morning of coffee and chat. Two years on this is still happening amongst this year group!

The playground has huge potential for friendship and community. Studies have shown that friendship development happens within 3–9 weeks after meeting (Hays, 1984, 1985). In these studies Friendship status was examined as a function of hours together, shared activities, and everyday talk. The playground has huge potential as it provides all of those things, but there is the potential for pain, jealousy and fear. Don’t be like me. I was too afraid to speak. I was too presumptuous. I thought everyone had their friendships signed and sealed. Give up chasing the “myth of the perfect friendship, instead choose, simply to be friendly each day.

It takes just one or two people to take the lead and be warm and hospitable. Others will love an invite and before you know you have a community beginning to form. Imagine the difference it would make if playgrounds across the country were full of adults and kids, displaying warmth and friendship to anyone they meet.

We’re made for friendship but we seem to have lost the art of being friendly. Take this time to stop and pause and resolve to live differently today. It will take boldness and courage and belief that you’re not the only one that finds it hard. But in turn, you’ll have been warm to many and might even find friendship.

We’re made for friendship but we seem to have lost the art of being friendly.

I’d love to explore is how you deepen friendships but also keep the invite open so that everyone is welcome. I’d love your thoughts and comments. What has worked for you? Can you build friendships when the playground is really diverse? What does this look like for the working Mum or the Dad that does drop off?

More everyday ideas for creating community…

  • Chat to other parents in the line as you wait
  • Invite other families to meet up in your local park
  • Join the PTFA
  • Organise a meet up for parents in the first few weeks
  • Set up a whole year group Facebook group or Whatsapp

What have you done to build community in the playground? I’d love to hear from you.

Big Thank you to the Dads on twitter engaging in this conversation and to Steven Knealle for his excellent response here.

Published by Nay Dawson

Hello and thank you for reading my blog. I'm married to Jon and live in Southampton with our two girls. I work with IFES Europe as their Regional Training Co-ordinator, training staff and students across Europe. In 2019 I set up Passion for Evangelism a network of creative, public female speakers. I'm a Trustee for the Cowrie Scholarship Foundation raising essential funds for disadvantaged Black British Students. I'm also a Trustee for Friends International helping welcome International students to the UK. In response to the war in Ukraine I helped set up Ukraine Connect matching refugees and hosts across Europe

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