All Around Town: Teaching & Sharing a Sense of Community Connection with Children

Over the past couple of years, many of us have stayed home more than usual. As it becomes more comfortable to “get back out there,” we find ourselves going more places, seeing more faces, and reconnecting with those in our communities.

But what does community mean to you? And what do we want children to learn about community?

For many people, different points along the timeline of the pandemic may have strengthened or strained our sense of connectedness in our communities. The definition and meaning of community resonates in different ways to different people. Many may define community by the physical boundaries of a town or zip code, but whether you live in an urban, rural, or suburban area, community means so much more than proximity to others or lines on a map. Its meaning often includes a collective sense of belonging in an area that shares common cultural characteristics, social values, an identity, fellowship with others, and resources that support the needs of its inhabitants.

So let’s facilitate a warm, child-friendly, RE-acquaintance with our communities as we emerge from hibernation and move All Around Town.

Start the Planning at Home
Let’s start with an easy, family-friendly planning activity. If you can draw squares, triangles and squiggly lines…we promise that this coloring activity won’t be too intimidating. Gather around the kitchen table with a large piece of plain paper, colorful markers or crayons, and your creative spirits! Draw one square (you can get fancier and add a triangle roof if you desire) that represents a location that resonates with you and your family as an integral part of your community. Maybe it is the fire station, the library, or your favorite ice cream shop! Color in your square (and triangle) and label the location. Share why that location is important to you in your community (safety, learning, connection with others…)! Now add additional squares and triangles (yes…primitive buildings) on your paper and identify at least 5-10 different locations to illustrate meaningful places in your community Remember…Directionality doesn’t matter…you aren’t making a real map, so relax and be playful!

Practice Greetings
Children learn so many of their earliest skills through imitation. They observe and try to replicate the actions and behaviors of others. It is important, however, to note that children don’t always imitate immediately after they observe, and often shy away from being pushed to interact with others before they are ready. This highlights the importance of continually and consistently modeling behaviors that you eventually want to see your child exhibit. Make a mindful effort to consistently model saying “hello” to a store clerk or hostess when you enter a store or restaurant. And make sure to say or wave “goodbye” when you leave.

Get on the floor with your child(ren) and use blocks, legos, or get creative with empty tissue or shoeboxes to create an imaginary community. Model and facilitate play activities with Little People for toddlers or action figures for school-age kids, making a point to use greetings when approaching the different “community areas” with the characters.

Encourage imaginary play activities, particularly kitchen play with pretend food, where children are motivated to approach a parent, friend or sibling to greet them and take an order (ie, “Hi! My name is Tyler. What would you like to eat today?”). Children love to gather the items that you requested and see your excitement! Elementary age kids often enjoy this type of kitchen/restaurant play long after parents think they might have outgrown it. Help them add components that make the play developmentally-appropriate at older stages by offering new learning opportunities (ie, add a cash register with play money to practice money management, create menus together (laminate for longevity), or add an old computer keyboard for them to pretend to input the order).

Label Community Helpers and How they Support Your Community
Use simple language by labeling the community helper and their basic role. For example, “Doctors help keep our bodies healthy”, “Teachers help us learn new things”, “The garbage collectors keep our neighborhoods clean”. Children love puppet play and dress-up, so this is a great opportunity to role play with children to help them make connections to community helpers when they are All Around Town.

Plan a Playful Community Scavenger Hunt
What better way to observe the people, places, and things around your town, than a DIY “All Around Town” Family Scavenger Hunt! Start off at home, making a list of fun and common things to find near your home, while on a walk, drive, or on public transportation. Allow your children to decorate the list, to encourage engagement. When you are satisfied with your scavenger hunt sheet, get out there and tour your town or neighborhood! Look for your items as a family team, or add some playful competition by inviting another family for an adult-supervised, family-friendly, Amazing Race type of community seek-and-find outing.

Model Care and Consideration for Your Neighbors and Community
Participate as a family in a community clean-up activity (planned or unplanned). This could be as simple as helping an elderly neighbor with some spring clean-up around their yard or volunteering on a more consistent basis with a non-profit organization that supports the care of your community. Keep a look out for seasonal or annual clean-up events that might be specific to your community (ie, Coastal Clean-up or Adopt a Highway).

Our neighbors present us with the opportunity to be connected to a broader community. They can be great friends and become a part of our daily lives, while interacting and increasing our home-based support system. Be sure to introduce your child to your trusted neighbors, particularly if you have a child with disabilities. Make your neighbors aware of your child’s unique needs and be sure they have your contact information. If the occasion should arise and you and/or if your child needs help, your neighbors will be familiar and can provide support. Consider additional safety products and services that support children with special needs: click here for a comprehensive list.

Plan a Visit
Initiate opportunities to connect with others at a pace that is comfortable for you and your family, branching out slowly. Be patient with your children, as they begin to go places with you. Plan a visit to one of the locations that you identified and illustrated on your “Community Map”. Call ahead and ask about timeframes that might be less crowded to allow a little more time to explore and connect with the community “helpers” that work there. Put a little check or star on or next to the location on your family’s map (or embellish with a small sticker) when your family has visited the location, providing an extra sense of accomplishment and community awareness.

Enjoy your favorite local store, take your kids to the playground, and eat at your favorite restaurant. Extend your hand or “fist bump” if it’s more comfortable. But be sure to encounter and get to know each other again (or for the first time). Connecting with others in your community builds a sense of belonging and connection that is important for the healthy social emotional growth of children and adolescents at various ages and stages.

Consider Safety Preparedness
Did you know that most Fire Companies invite the public to tour the Department during working hours? What better way to introduce your kids to real life firefighters (very important community figures!), see the firetrucks up close, and learn more about fire safety?! While you are there, ask the staff if they have special stickers for doors or windows. This is also a great time to discuss and practice a family plan in case of a fire, including a planned safe outdoor meeting place. Check your smoke detector batteries, and allow your children to hear the alarm- even if with ear muffs or noise-cancelling headphones on- so they are familiar with the sound. Make sure all of your windows are in working order and consider keeping an information card on the fridge so that emergency personnel know what needs your family members may have. If you have any questions about fire safety, don’t hesitate to contact your fire department, using their non-emergency phone number.

Consider Strategies that will Help Support Success with New Experiences
For outings that might require your child to sit still or might create a bit more stress or anxiety, be proactive with some thoughtful preparedness. Outings for haircuts and the dentist are examples of experiences that can be particularly tricky for kiddos that tend to have worries or wiggles. Seek the input of a pediatric therapist that might have specific recommendations if your child has unique needs that might require special considerations.

For a visit to your local stylist or barber, consider these tips. If this is your child’s first visit to a salon it might be helpful to make a trial run during a time when it is less crowded. Let them explore the environment (with permission). This could help relieve a lot of anxiety of the unknown. While you are there talk to the professional who will be working with your child. Ask questions and encourage your son or daughter to do the same. The more you learn on the trial run, the more prepared your child will feel. It is also important that the Stylist/Barber understands the support that might be needed during your visit.

Consider a few tips that will help prepare you and your child(ren) for your next visit.
1. If your child is sensitive to sounds such as the buzzing of clippers it might be good to turn them on at home in a calm environment and let them acclimate to the sound. Consider a play barber set (some have pretend clippers).
2. Practice draping a towel around your child so that they are familiar with the sensation before they receive the cape from the salon.
3. Spritz some water on your child’s hair, comb, and brush. Modeling what will happen during their appointment will help them prepare for those new sensations.
4. Read stories, look at pictures from magazines, and watch videos about getting a haircut.
5. Engage in pretend play with plastic safety scissors. This will be helpful if he or she is more of a visual learner. Playdough makes a cute hair cutting set that can also be used for pretend play.
6. Ask your child if they’d like to bring a stuffed animal and/or sensory fidget. This could help comfort them and promote calming if they are feeling anxious or overwhelmed.
7. Particularly for kiddos with worries or wiggles…Consider making or purchasing a weighted lap pad for your child to place on their lap during the haircut. This can help to provide a sense of calming security during a new experience.

For a visit to your local dentist, consider these tips. Dentists are a very important part of the community, as they keep us healthy and strong, by maintaining our oral health. For a lot of children (adults included), an appointment to the dentist can be hard, specifically for those who have sensory sensitivities. The dentist’s office can display a lot of lights and sounds and sometimes this can be very overstimulating. Understanding what the dental office environment is like and what will take place during the visit is key.

Consider a few tips that will help prepare you and your child(ren) for your next visit.
1. Call ahead to tour your dental office and meet your dentist and dental hygienist.
2. Discuss your child’s different needs and support before the appointment, including any fears or sensitivities.
3. Read books and watch tv shows about trips to the dentist. This will help prepare you and your child for the upcoming visit.
4. Facilitate imaginary play activities with your child, placing a doll or stuffed animal in a reclined chair to “clean and count their teeth”. Dinosaurs are especially fun for counting teeth.
4. Have your child lay down on a chair while you pretend to (or if they are calm and ready) brush their teeth and floss. Take breaks if needed. This will give your child the sensation of someone over them looking and working in their mouth.
5. Some children will benefit from a visual schedule or social story in order to help understand and prepare for their visit. Ask a pediatric therapist that might have specific recommendations if your child has unique needs that might require special considerations.
6. Ask your child if they’d like to bring a stuffed animal and/or sensory fidget. This could help comfort them or promote calming if they are feeling anxious or overwhelmed.
7. Particularly for kiddos with worries or wiggles…Consider asking the hygienist to gently place the x-ray apron on your child throughout the cleaning. This added weight can help to provide a sense of calming security during this new experience.

Whatever your spring season might entail for your child(ren) and family, or the children you serve in a therapeutic setting, we hope it will offer opportunities to support successful RE-acquaintances within our communities as we move All Around Town.

Authored by Christina Connors, Pediatric Occupational Therapist with contributions by Jenny Manning, Community Outreach Specialist and Child Inspired Team Members.

Child Inspired is an emerging family-centered, pediatric wellness practice in Southern Delaware. We are so proud of the inspiring group of pediatric therapists and educators that are working collaboratively to bring help and healing to children and families with in-home, outpatient therapy services and community outreach workshops. The Child Inspired team takes their work very seriously, but does make sure to sprinkle in moments of silliness and laughter, as we all need strategies to cope with the various challenges we must navigate.

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