Sometimes, when I’m a helper at Seedlings, I’ll see a stream of older folks walking by the playground. Our program shares space with a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, which hosts classes for seniors at the same time we’re here. I wonder what those men and women are thinking as they walk past. Are they grandparents who love seeing children at play? Do they mind the noise or wonder about the seeming chaos? Maybe they wish they could be kids again, digging in the sand, sailing through the air on a swing, painting at an easel, banging a drum.

Making music together

Seedlings is a co-op: a parent cooperative early childhood/creative arts program, which requires parents to volunteer as helpers twice a month. If you thought the children were learning a lot, wait until you have your first helper day. We parents are learning just as much.

One of the most critical elements of being a helper at Seedlings is “plugging in.” Part of the adults’ job is to ensure the children’s safety, and one way we do that is to devote our full attention to the children at all times. We help facilitate activities, mediate disputes, comfort those who are hurt, fill hungry bellies, read books, refill paint cups and take on many other roles as helpers. Sometimes, we just watch and learn.

During my most recent helper day, I spent a good deal of the morning outside, pushing kids on swings and observing the playground. Every so often, a child would come to me with a question or concern.

When a girl approached me to say that a boy wouldn’t let her dig with him, I helped her find another shovel and another spot to dig. She asked me to dig with her. As we tunneled down into the sand, another eager boy came over, intent on joining us. The girl asked that he dig elsewhere.

Filling a trench

The boy scampered away, over to where two smaller children were using some new shovels to bury a cardboard box. The boy tried to join them, but the little kids didn’t want to share, and one yelled out in distress. A teacher helped the older boy find something else to do.

Later, after the children had gone home, the parent helpers and the teachers sat down to review the day. What had gone well? Who had played together? Were the various activities successful? What conflicts had we seen and how had they been resolved?

I described what I’d seen. Susan listened, and I realized that, had she been on the playground, she would have seen those interactions very differently. The girl who was digging with me has been finding her voice, Susan said. Her rebuff of the eager boy is further evidence of that. She is learning to express herself with kindness and understanding while saying no. The eager boy, who had also tried to play with the smaller kids, is full of energy, and can sometimes be too exuberant or overwhelming for quieter children. He is starting to discover that, too. The little kids have learned that they won’t be forced or coerced to share: they can continue to build their budding relationship and use the shovels until they are done, and they don’t have to invite others into their play if they aren’t ready.

The play, the digging and the emotions I had witnessed — and which someone walking by might interpret as chaotic or unfocused activities — were part of the larger lessons that Seedlings teaches to children and adults.

Time for popcorn!

Helper day at Seedlings is a lot of work, but also a lot of fun and full of lessons, even for those of us who have been Seedlings parents for years.

© Victoria Green and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2011
Photos © Haidor Truu and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2011