Yesteryear’s Neighborhood in Today’s Co-op

by Carol Cross-Phillips

Times have changed so much. Many of us remember a childhood where screen doors flung open and the children in the neighborhood raced down the street to meet up with all the other kids. There wasn’t usually a plan, a schedule, or even a set location to meet. Someone might bring a ball, someone might bring a shoebox with a newly caught praying mantis, and the fun would just begin. Parents didn’t worry. In fact, they often pushed the kids out with the all-too-familiar nudge, “Go!! Play outside!” Children romped from hillside to backyard to creek to the climbing tree. They got messy, they explored, they dug in the dirt; they made pretend perfumes and mudpies. They learned about nature, consequences, being part of a group, and they learned creativity, self-reliance and responsibility.

As the evening drew to a close, or when the kids got thirsty, they’d pop into one home or another. The neighborhood became their extended family. Kids learned quickly which parents had the gentlest touch putting a band aid on a scraped knee, which dad made the funniest jokes, and who had the best popsicles. Everyone was wise to the fact that if you stopped into Mrs. Jones’ house around 3:00pm, you’d always get a cookie. Or if you went to Timmy’s house when his little brother was napping, you could watch some cartoons, but if you went to Mr. Baker’s house on Sunday afternoon during football season, he could get pretty grumpy!

In neighborhoods like these, the families became a parenting group, multiple parents parenting multiple children. Children learned to trust and respect the various parenting styles and to feel comfortable with their own place within this larger “family.” Parents could lean on each other and know that if they had to run an errand, their little one was safe and sound at the neighbor’s home. Parents also had to learn to trust and “let go” and know that if their child was scolded at the Thompsons’ home for throwing food, that the child would ultimately be ok and learn quickly how the rules worked from home to home, family to family.

These neighborhoods are hard to find today. Some of us are very lucky and have streets full of young children, and families welcoming them in to play any time. But it’s harder and harder to find this parent/child bliss. Parents of today are heavy with fear about outdoor risks and safety, so there are fewer and fewer opportunities to run free down the street to places and people unknown. Many families feel more isolated today, driving in from work through an electric garage door which closes behind them, sometimes going weeks without greeting a neighbor. Children aren’t benefitting from the incredible value that comes from having several key adults in their lives. And maybe worst of all, kids aren’t getting out, they aren’t having unstructured play time, they aren’t designing their own activities or getting messy, and they aren’t embraced by the neighborhood community around them.

Unless they join a cooperative preschool.

There are many cooperative preschools in the Bay Area rich with community, learning, support and yes, messy fun! They range in the ages they serve, from 6 months to pre-K. “But that’s just a preschool,” you say. “Isn’t that just as structured and limiting as everything else today?” The answer is that it depends. There are some preschools that are more structured and provide a lot of direction for children. But many are wonderfully child-directed with a multitude of opportunities for learning through play and exploration.

And possibly one of the most magical things about some of these co-op programs is they really do recreate the neighborhood of yesteryear. Children spend an entire school year (yes, even the babies do!) in the same group of parents and children. It’s fascinating to see even young babies grow comfortable with the chemistry of the children AND parents in the class. They develop special rapports with certain parents, they know which parents belong to which children, and they learn to trust and be comfortable with the unique parenting style of everyone in the classroom community. They allow other parents to soothe them, help them, laugh and play with them. They become part of something bigger, heartwarming and rich. And the parents find much needed support, partnerships and lifetime friends. Yes, times have changed, but the neighborhood you’re missing might be just down the street at your local co-op preschool program!

Carol Cross-Phillips is the Executive Director and a long-serving teacher at Little Hands cooperative preschool in Belmont. She lives her philosophy of “family first” in the classroom and at home, and is mom to three thriving teenagers.