For a long time I have been fascinated by the responses and insights when people reflect on places they remember playing as children. In environmental autobiographies, people, typically adults, think of a place they spent time when they were young that they liked or went to frequently. Calling this place to mind and walking through it mentally, they revisit it unearthing memories and sensations about places they loved to play as children. Cherished friends, forgotten, are now remembered. Memories of smells of dry wood, damp dirt, and crushed leaves return. Stripes on a shirt, patterns on a quilt, details on a leaf are suddenly clear again.
I shouldn’t be surprised that something comparably remarkable happens upon asking people to reflect on other experiences from their childhood: a friendship, feeling welcome and safe, an important adult, helping someone, taking a risk.
I have come to think of these as childhood autobiographies. Guided exercises, they are able to surface long ago moments and meaningful childhood memories in ways that delight adults remembering childhood and awaken them to the children they know, work with, and care for today.
Seeing Everyday Places
A childhood autobiography about community was a productive starting place for a recent half-day workshop, “Seeing Everyday Places: Connecting Children and their Communities” sponsored by the Reggio-inspired Network of Minnesota. A group of 36 early childhood teachers, museum educators, school administrators, and university early childhood specialists gathered to review and reflect on the documentation of 4 projects facilitated by parent and teacher researchers who explored community settings with their children. The research project, “Seeing Everyday Places” is a collaboration between the Network and Minnesota Children’s Museum related to the Museum’s extensive renovation of its galleries.
Launched in January 2014, the project invited teachers and parents and their children to visit everyday community settings such as the post office, fire department, market, or hardware store to explore children's ideas about community. The Museum intends to incorporate children’s ideas and insights about community and places in its redesigned Our World gallery. These explorations of community began with questions about how people, places, work, and play interconnect and support neighborhoods, towns, and communities. Each group followed the interests and questions of the children about a setting, capturing their words and images to bring greater visibility to their thinking and understanding of community.
We Were All Children Once
Childhood autobiographies work because we were all children once. A very personal connection with children prepares us in thinking about and following children’s explorations. When we ask ourselves what we remember about community from when we were children, we are softening that barrier between our very adult perspective of today and a perspective that connects with children’s experiences, questions and ideas.
The 20-30 minute exercise invites each person to reenter their childhood, thinking back to ages 4, 5, or 6 years old. Relaxing, eyes closed, participants are invited to revisit childhood and scan memories and images from those years that connect somehow with community. Community may be related to a place, a building, or a natural area. It may connect with a person or group of people; or be associated with an event, image, words, or a feeling. Connections may be positive–or not–but they should be strong and worth unpacking.
When participants find something that resonates with from their childhood, they are invited to sit with it, turn it around, and re-familiarize themselves with it. They might consider some questions such as: What did you think your community was? What was important about it? What did it look or feel like? What fascinated you about it? Why? What did you wonder about? What or who encouraged you to wonder more about community?
If more than one moment or experience floats by, following both is helpful. Not only is community a rich, complex idea, but sometimes one recollection leads to another or adds meaning. Equally important, considering more than one perspective on community can open up listening to children’s varied ideas of community. Participants are invited to capture or record their thoughts by taking notes, creating and labeling a simple drawing, or writing a brief narrative. After about 5-10 minutes of reflecting, participants are asked to share recollections on one or two childhood experiences with someone sitting near them.
Recollections of Community from Childhood
Revisiting childhood experiences pulls distant moments forward into the present, making them accessible for further exploration. Returning to memories can place a person in the situation. Emotions, images, and sometimes sounds and smells float by to be examined and appreciated. Some people are inclined to visit longer than others. Yet, as members of the group begin to share reflections, everyone is drawn in. Heads around the room nod; people find and share connections.
Seven threads seemed to run through the childhood recollections about community within this group with some recollections pulling on more than one thread. An initial sort, these threads could be revised or refined with the addition of more childhood autobiographies.
Community: places and people connected by relationships
• The neighborhood was the people I grew up with
• We were in the woods, in our own world. We had the freedom of space and time. That clearing in the woods, I can visit it today
• The first time I was making real connections to other people outside of my family.
• Children with children
Multiple and overlapping communities
• My parents were divorced so I had three neighborhoods. My mom’s neighborhood in Minneapolis; my dad’s in St. Paul; and my grandmother’s neighborhood, for childcare
• There was my immediate neighborhood and the “mercantile” neighborhood within walking distance
• I didn’t think about my community as a child, but I was in a community. I was in a couple of communities. My main community was 28 square blocks. I knew people in all those places.
Children figure out community rules
• My community was where I felt welcome and safe. Would I be welcome? Were people glad to see me at the corner store? Would they share resources? Safe was risks and hazards, expectations, and social rules. What are the expectations and social rules in this neighborhood store or that neighborhood store? What were the resources that were available to me? At an early age, resource was the freedom to get something wonderful...touch something wonderful and have access to public restroom and water. And a grown up that could rescue you if something horrible happened.
Community connections change with age
• Playing sports was the first time of making real connections to other people outside my family
• Freedom to go explore community neighborhood space encouraged more independence to go out and explore
Children as agents in creating community
• We lived in a rural area where all the houses were summer homes except ours and one other family with 4 kids. We created our own community, made library cards...checked out books from our library. Isolated, we sought community around ourselves
Life lessons in everyday moments around the community
• We were just dragged around and included in things. Mom said, I gotta do this and I gotta be here...gotta mail a package...let's go
• You were just included; it wasn’t a huge intentional lesson, you were a part of things...that's just how it went
• Freedom to go explore community neighborhood space
Full of possibilities
• Children with children gave us a sense of empowerment. We were on our own, running from house to house, in our own world and creating it on our own
• Boundless possibilities
• Secret space
Following the Thread of Community
Childhood autobiographies prepare adults, whether they are parents, teachers, museum educators, exhibit developers or designers, to follow children’s questions and interests on a concept or an idea. Recollecting a community place and person from childhood or recalling a moment of understanding a feeling of connection personalizes our perspective and attunes our sensibilities to what children might find meaningful. New–or renewed–insights open doors to possible ways we might build on children's interests and extend their explorations of their community through exhibits, programs, and projects.
Thinking back to your childhood, What did you think your community was? What was important about it? What did it look or feel like?
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