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The power and importance of community

One thing that has been much on my mind has been the importance of community. It’s struck me in the books I’ve been reading recently (The Liberal Arts Tradition, A Philosophy of Education, Free to Learn). I’ve felt it first hand both positively, with friends round (outside) to play, and catching up with the local gossip at swimming after six months – and negatively, as friends in England with larger families are devastated by the new restrictions that mean (as six or more on their own) they can legally no longer meet anyone outside of their families.

When this all kicked off back in March, I lost count of the number of people who said ‘I suppose this doesn’t make much difference to you’. And it’s true that the choices we had made over the years left us in a much better position to weather the storm than many. My husband has worked from home for 14 years; we’ve never used school, and our online classes were familiar and unchanged. We live in the country with plenty of space both inside and out, and the experience of being snowed in in winter has left us well prepared for long periods at home. The Spring weather was beautiful and a few weeks together with a slower pace left the children more time to play with each other.

However, we missed martial arts, and swimming, and hanging out at our home ed group. We missed the experiences of big roadtrips to watch Shakespeare together with classmates. Seeing grandparents. The casual kick about and passing comments with friends that come from hours spent together and can’t be replicated in an email or on Zoom. People are social animals after all, and much as I believe the family should be more at the centre of life than it usually is in our society, it can’t be everything. Even Laura Ingalls left the woods for the joy of a Christmas party, and the family moved to town when the girls hit their teens.

The children missed other children, that was obvious, and to an extent I didn’t really realise until we had a gathering of some of our home ed group on our back field recently – well under numbers and with plenty of outside space to safely expand in. The joy from them at the end of the day was palpable – like a drink of water when you haven’t realised how thirsty you are. And I had missed adults. Not just the exchanges on WhatsApp and Facebook, which believe me I have appreciated and needed over this time, but hanging out shooting the breeze. The time – usually a couple of hours in, not the first hello – when the brave face slips a little if it needs to (or the friend you’ve been worrying about is actually OK, but was having a bad day that time). When you see that everyone else’s kids get a bit whiny sometimes, and constantly demand food and then object to the food you give them, and moan that you make them do too much work when it would literally be over in an hour a day if they just got on with it… in short, that you’re not failing at life, you’re just living it like everyone else.

However one thing that I have really come to appreciate over this time is the importance of other adults in my children’s lives. This is truly what it means to be educated, and socialised – to come to an understanding of the world you are a part of and to find your place within it. This doesn’t come purely from the experience of life within a single family, and it doesn’t come from career talks and teaching experiences within the confines of a classroom. It comes from experiencing adult relationships and viewing possibilities firsthand.

It comes from seeing that this family run a business together; that in that one the parents work on different days; this family has just one Mum to look after them all; that one has two Mums; in this family the Mum works and the Dad stays home… that there are other options besides the ones your family has chosen.

It comes from seeing that we can have different opinions on things, and still be friends. It comes from seeing that where values are important to us, we can seek out those who share them and it makes us both stronger. It comes from overhearing what is shared, and what isn’t, and with whom. It comes from gaining insight and ideas from someone equally experienced in life, but – and this is crucial – who is not your mother.

It’s not just passive observation, either. One thing that’s particularly noticable in home ed groups – though certanly not exclusive to them – is other adults relating to children on an equal level. There is something deeply affirming when another adult takes the time to get to know you, teach you guitar, show you their drawing, ask you to watch their baby. Other adults have skills and interests that your parents don’t, and seeing those in action and being able to join in benefits everyone.

As a parent, I’ve loved getting to know other people’s kids too – new ideas and skills and interests don’t only pass from adults to children.

You can get this from a teacher-pupil relationship to some extent, and seeking out those relationships and experiences – and being mindful of the people you are lending your child to for this time – is valuable. But it’s not the only way. Often the most important experiences come from outside of the formal classes, and it’s waiting on the sidelines that really builds and embeds community.

For five years now we’ve had swimming lessons in our small local pool – five years of spending up to four hours a week waiting through the various lessons, alongside the other parents. Through those five years I’ve watched children grow up, chatted to their parents and the swim teachers, played with their kids, and they’ve done the same. These are our local community, the families we’ve seen throughout the years, in the local shops, at toddler groups and ballet lessons and the local show. Those ties to a community are important, and sharing a school isn’t the only way to build them.

Right now things are different, and those easy ties and social experiences are harder to find. But they are every bit as important. It might not look the same, for a time. We’re not sitting on poolside shoulder to shoulder watching our kids on their first lesson back after six months. But we can stand outside, keep our distance, take the masks off, swap stories, and peek through the window to see how they’re getting on.

Community isn’t an optional extra. It’s not a thing we can just put aside for a year or two and expect it to have no impact. It’s vital to being human, and it’s worth seeking out, protecting and preserving, however different that may look.

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