Modelling community

Photo: Laura Fulton

Many of us begin planning and building communities from a very young age. The configuration and placement of blocks, train tracks or makeshift forts in the forest represent our early thoughts about built environment, what belongs in a community, and what is important to us as individuals. This is an invaluable process, both as children learning about the world around us, and as adults exploring the nature of community. Here are a few examples of how ‘play cities’ can be useful learning experiences, for people of all ages.

Photo: Laura Fulton

At École John Stubbs Memorial School, grade two teacher Denise Drouin recognizes the importance of this activity. As part of the social studies curriculum, her students have been busily building their own community out of recycled cardboard. The students needed to work together to decide what was important to include in their community, their roles as builders, and how it would all fit together. The end product is quite impressive.

Photo: Laura Fulton

For middle school students, the University of Washington runs a summer camp for students called “Community Architecture: Solving Social and Environmental Issues Through Design.”This takes cardboard city making to the next level – pushing young people to think about both the human and environmental aspects of community building.

Kids aren’t the only ones who can engage in building model communities. By taking a step back from the real world, we can consider the possibilities and challenges of communities in a fun, abstract way. This may inspire us to then enact what we want to see in our communities in real life. The consultancy, ‘Foam’, understands the relevance of adults working together to build miniature communities – they included it as part of their professional development method to encourage leaders to “think with their hands” in a collaborative way – which ultimately leads to better business practice.  This has been so popular that thee toy company LEGO has now taken over and rebranded this program the “LEGO Serious Play” method of team building in work contexts.

Examples of adults learning through toy cities can be found around the world. The Home Sweet Home exhibit that took place this past spring in Vancouver is

Photo: Home Sweet Home Exhibit, by Helen at

a larger scale version of what takes place in Denise Drouin’s grade two class. Cardboardia, a popular event in Moscow and Berlin also gives adults an opportunity to play with the idea of community – hopefully taking lessons learned from the experience back to their real lives.

At any age, the idea of taking a step away from reality and refocusing on working together to build a ‘play’ community can hold tremendous value. It allows anyone to play the part of mayor, urban planner, or active community member. Principals, teachers and students can also come together to  re-imagining their school communities in this hands-on way. The process can refine our ability to work together as a team, while encouraging us to think creatively about what our ideal communities should include and how we can get there. Although I’ve listed a few examples here, I’m interested to find more! Please leave a comment or contact me.

Wild in the city

Many of us are aware of the need to create open spaces for gathering or playing in cities, or on school grounds. My kids love playgrounds, and I love lying on a patch of open green grass. However, neither monkey bars nor picnic blankets on a groomed field match the experience one can have in a wild, diverse forest. In addition to the importance of biodiversity provided by wild ecosystems, researchers are increasingly pointing our attention toward the importance for both adults and children to connect with nature every day, for the sake of their mental and physical health.

Photo: Laura Fulton

One of the best known proponents of this view is Richard Louv, a journalist who made quite an impact with his book, Last Child in the Woods in 2008.  Louv suggested that children can suffer from “nature deficit disorder” and that direct exposure to nature is essential for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. If you are interested in reading beyond Louv on this subject, there’s a wealth of scholarly and more general literature available. The Children and Nature Network provides links to a wealth of recent research on this topic. The writings of David Orr may also be of interest, and the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education is also an excellent resource for further information.

Despite the increasing recognition of the importance of wild spaces to human health, most city parks and school playgrounds I see are dominated by treeless playing fields and government approved playground equipment. This, to me, presents an excellent opportunity for community members – and particularly schools – to take action and get involved.

Here are three ways that people are taking the lead in ensuring that we maintain our connection with the natural environment in urban settings.

  1. Cities and forests
    A good example of a project focused on urban forests is the Cities for Forests led by the World Wildlife Fund (India). The project seeks to raise public awareness about the intrinsic link between forests and human well-being, especially amongst the youth of India. At a more municipal level, the City of Toronto runs an ongoing program of public education around the value of urban forests.  Similarly, the Habitat Acquisition Trust (HAT) in the City of Victoria has worked with the municipality to map urban forests, and inform the public about their value.
  2. Integrating the outdoors into the school day
    HAT has also engaged in a program to create outdoor, nature-based classrooms called Green Spots.  This project represents an increasing trend in public and private educational institutions to encourage learning in outdoor environments. Often, schools will integrate nature based learning as one component of the larger curriculum. For example, students in the public Vancouver School Board have the option of applying to the TREK Program. During this year-long program, students spend 5 months “on-TREK” where they are involved in a combination of outdoor activities, field studies, and classroom-based academics, and 5 months “off-TREK” where they will complete an intensified academic curriculum.   There a number of similar programs in the United States as well, including Tahoma High’s Outdoor Academy and an Outdoor Academy in North Carolina.
  3. Making the outdoors the school day
    The previous examples focus largely on integrating natural spaces with existing school frameworks, and encouraging students to spend only part of their day – or part of their year – outdoors. In contrast, there is another movement to encourage children to spend the majority of their educational time outdoors. In essence, this approach places the entire classroom in the wild: the forest is not out of bounds, but is instead where the heart of daily learning and living takes place. “Nature Kindergarten” and “Forest Preschools” are based on this philosophy. While established in Europe, this educational model is steadily gaining ground in North America. For more information, you should check out the newly launched Nature Kindergarten started by Sooke School District on Vancouver Island.  Another example from British Columbia is the Maple Ridge Environmental School Project, where kindergarten to grade 7 students spend their entire day learning in a local park . Finally, a great general resource is the Forest Schools website from the UK .

As always, this is just the tip of iceberg! Please share more examples of cities and schools putting wild spaces first.

Libraries leading community

Photo: San Jose Public Library

I am very lucky to live in place that is home to a large number of excellent public libraries. Going to the library is a regular family outing in my household. It is a place to get out of the rain, to bump into friends, to gather a new selection of books and to attend the wide array of free programs on offer.  I am very aware of how fortunate we are to have such a wonderful resource not far from our front door! It is for this reason that I am writing this post in praise of the role that libraries play in building community.

Here are six inspiring examples of libraries pushing their boundaries, complementing their traditional roles and being creative in community building:

1. Integrating social services
The Alachua Library located in Florida was created as a partnership that has allowed them to become much more than a place that just lends books. They now also host a community closet, which distributes clothing and food, and act as a home to social services such as assistance with rent subsidies, substance abuse and seniors socials. The Alachua Library received an award for this work from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2011.

2. School-library partnerships
The Howard County Library System has created a school-library partnership that they call “A+ Partners in Education”. This arrangement means that every school is assigned an associated branch and liaison person within that branch, every student receives a library card upon registering at school, and librarians provide programming within schools. All very simple ideas, but effective! I can remember running a school field trip to the library when teaching in a grade 5/6 classroom located a block away from the library. Over half of the students in that class did not have a library card before that field trip.

Some communities have experimented with combining public and school libraries into the same facility. There are pros and cons to such a model, as described by the Wisconsin department of public instruction in their useful guide on this topic. In the province of Alberta, 20% of public libraries are housed in schools, and the provincial government has written a useful report on their experiences with this approach.

For those very interested in this topic, Natalie Reif Ziarnik has just released a book examining the relationship between schools and libraries.

3. Hackerspace
The Allen County Public Library is re-imagining itself as a place where community members share much more than books. They have installed  a ‘hackerspace’ or ‘Maker Station’ in their parking lot. The hackerspace is a place where community members can share skills and use machines such as computer controlled power tools and 3-D printers, which can create a plastic object from a computer file! The library director envisions the “Maker Station” as a place where peer to peer learning can occur and where the library can move beyond the “book business” to the “learning business and the exploration business and the expand-your-mind business.” This library has caught the attention of folks such as Make magazine, NPR, and Mind/Shift.

4. Express Library
The Greater Victoria Public Library system – which I’m proud to call my home base – has experimented with the idea of an ‘express library’ attached to a coffee shop, which is located in a developing suburban core. The small library branch only carries recently released books and videos, all displayed in a very browser-friendly manner. Users have access to computers and there is a corner in which kids can settle down and read. After checking out books, one can lounge in the chairs provided, move to the café next door or head out to a nearby park – all of which we regularly do with our family. While this kind of library does not replace a traditional library, it certainly provides a wonderful compliment to an already vibrant system.

5. Human Library
Perhaps it is my own experience living and working in an international school that emphasizes the need to live together to understand one another, that keeps bringing me back to the human library. This is a wonderful way to build community and enhance peer to peer learning in our societies. This concept is growing fast. If one has not yet been organized in your local library, here is a description of how you can get one going.

6. Mobile libraries
There are many examples of great mobile libraries. In Thailand, the Minister of Education has funded boat libraries. The Columbus Metropolitian Library in Ohio has moved the library out of the constraints of its walls and into its community. The staff at this library travel to ‘at risk’ communities to share literacy-building skills aimed at children. In addition to workshops, they also offer mobile book checkout and library card sign-ups. For an entertaining read about mobile libraries, pick up the children’s book My Librarian is a Camel. If you’re looking to start your own mobile library, check out – a site where Australian librarians  share ideas and experiences about running mobile libraries.

Of course, these are just a few of the ways in which libraries help build community around them. For those who are keen to think more deeply about the role that libraries play in building community, check out PPS’s Libraries as Porches, or the Community-Led Libraries Toolkit, the result of an innovative project run by the Greater Vancouver Public Library. What about your library? Do you have an example to share?

My crush on wordle

Okay, I know that Wordle is older than flash mobs but for me, it is as fresh as ever.

My recent infatuation with Wordle is linked to my work in developing programs, curriculum, pedagogical principles, mission statements and so on. With all of this work, the way we communicate content is incredibly important.  Perhaps the most satisfying aspects of developing  these types of documents is that they are usually created with high levels of collaboration and consultation.

However, one of the things that is tricky about collaboration  is that participants often tire of the endless circulation of paperwork, or committee meetings dominated by re-reading past work. It is easy to spend a lot of time catching up on where the group last left off or getting lost in debates over the semantics of a particular sentence or word. Enter Wordle.

While the beautiful ‘word clouds’ created by Wordle need to be taken with a grain of salt, this website allows us to easily step back and take stock of what we have created. It helps to review where we are coming from and where we are going to – what does our current mission, program, curriculum, or other documents emphasize? Is that what we want to emphasize? Consider the following examples:

1. Mission

Perhaps one of the best known examples of a mission statement change was the switch the March of Dimes made in 1958 away from Polio towards birth defects in infants. While both the old and new mission statements are easy to read, the difference between them has particularly strong visual impact when presented in a  ‘word cloud’:

mssion prior to 1958

mission post 1958

2. Curriculum

The Province of Ontario’s Ministry of Education recently updated a number of the curriculum documents for the K-12 school system. One of the clearest shifts in content came with the introduction of the 2007 Grades 1-8 Science and Technology curriculum. These word clouds could help us clearly see a consistent emphasis on students, energy, water, technology, and investigations (‘investigate’). However, we can also see an increased emphasis on environment; a decreased use of the words ‘describe’ and ‘identify’; and an increased use of the the ideas of ‘understanding’ and ‘expectations’. There is also a notable disappearance of the word ‘grade’. If one were involved in the process of rewriting this document, it would be interesting to go back to the development team and ask if this shift in emphasis was, in fact, their intent. If not, perhaps it merits taking a second look at the language used in the curriculum guide.

Ontario Gr 1-8 Science & Technology, 1998

Ontario Gr 1-8 Science & Technology, 2007

3. Comparing programs

I have recently been working with the residential team at Lester B. Pearson United World College (where I am a faculty member) to think about how we approach our residential learning program. To help provide some colourful inspiration to the team, I compared a Wordle using the current description of our residential learning program with that of Michigan State University’s residential learning outcomes. This was a quick and easy way to think about the different aspects of our program that are being emphasized in our external documentation. It also quickly generated some visual stimulation using an institution that seems to share several similar learning goals with us.

Learning through Residential Life, Lester B. Pearson UWC

Residential Learning Outcomes, Michigan State University

Wordle does not allow us to completely evade the elbow grease required to write documents that truly express what is most important to us. It certainly does provide a wonderful form of stimulation and perhaps a light moment at the beginning of what could otherwise be a tedious start to a meeting.

Taking a break, enjoying community

Laura is taking a brief break to enjoy community and family. Watch for a great new post on January 3. You can also follow @communitiesknow on twitter.

Parks and Public Space – Consider the Monkey Bars

This week, we are very lucky to read a guest post by Alice Hutton. Alice is dedicated to building healthy communities in both her personal and professional lives. During the twenty years that I have known her, she has never ceased to be creative and innovative in constantly seeking ways to build community. She is currently a community health planner and consultant in Ottawa, Ontario.

Parks often have an untapped potential for creating community, learning, improving the health of a population and making our urban spaces more vibrant and engaging.   But how is it possible to successfully capture and facilitate this potential?  This is a challenging and oftentimes daunting task.

A couple of years ago our small neighbourhood park was scheduled to have an older wooden play structure decommissioned.  The community association called some neighbours together and provided the plan for what would be replaced.  The new structure was less than inspiring.  It was small; it was geared only towards preschoolers. The plans made the neighbours angry.  They felt that the old play structure was better than what was being suggested as a replacement.  With some coordinating, a small community meeting was arranged in the park with a city staff member. Frustrations were expressed and conversations began regarding the role of the park, the play structure and what options might be available.     At the time my daughter was a preschooler and I listened as several parents argued strongly for the need for monkey bars and swings.  The city staff member and the community came up with a creative way to get the best structure available within the budget and maintain the features of the park that were considered assets.   And the new structure did indeed have monkey bars.  I was not exactly sure why monkey bars were so important, but both parents and older children maintained with conviction that they were necessary.

Now two years later and a parent of child who, after the 578th time of attempting the monkey bars, succeeded and as someone trying to understand the greater importance of parks, I think I am beginning to have an appreciation of why monkey bars are important – both figuratively and literally – in the creation of public spaces.  To successfully master the monkey bars takes practice, lots of it.  In the process of watching a child learn to swing their body from bar to bar, it becomes obvious that mastery only comes with many failed attempts. However, the child optimistically maintains a goal of reaching across the chasm by watching other children; learning how to move their bodies differently; taking chances, and sometimes painfully failing with a thump on the ground.

I believe that many of the parks I consider successful and uniquely vibrant have achieved their success, due to the persistence of optimistic visions of community members and doggedness to continue striving for vibrancy even through set-backs, just as a child does with the monkey bars.   One of the parks I find most inspiring is Dufferin Park in Toronto.  It is a space where as soon as you enter the park and start to walk through it you realize that it is pushing the boundaries of what a typical urban park can be.  A group committed to the park has built brick ovens, where pizzas can be baked and community meals prepared.  A cob (mud and straw) outdoor kitchen area has also been constructed in a design that imaginative and brings to mind mystical homes of fairies or hobbits.    The park is also committed to permitting open fires through a series of maintained fire pits.   When you move to the playground corner, the typical playground structure is fenced off by a wooden rail fence that welcomes sitting and is adjacent to a huge sandpit with water for children to play endlessly digging and creating.    The success of the park and unique activities that occur there are primarily through the efforts of an organization called “Friends of Dufferin Park”.   They have built their success through on-going commitment and creatively figuring out new ways to integrate ideas and initiatives into the park.   However, it has not always been easy and there have been many challenges along the way, including recent difficulties in the area of job sharing with city staff.

This dedication to making spaces vibrant is not an easy thing to achieve and although government structures and processes at times might make these endeavours difficult to succeed, other government agencies and organizations are trying to gain a better grasp of how public spaces can work.   Dufferin Park has spurred the creation of Centre For Local Research into Public Space (CELOS) with a specific focus on public spaces within Toronto.  Meanwhile the Ontario provincial government is supporting the exploration of how parks and public places can help residents be healthier and happier in partnership with 8-80 Cities and internationally organizations such as the Project for Public Spaces has been working on this very topic since the 1970’s

With all this energy and commitment why is making successful public spaces so difficult? And why is there not a “Dufferin Park” in every city?   I think the answer comes back to the monkey bars: each park is like a child and the community that supports a park has to learn on their own (but by watching others) how to navigate the coordination, engagement of neighbours, community members, government and businesses and continue to dream of potential even if there are setbacks along the way.     And most importantly, they must listen.   Listen to those who use, used or hope to use the park and what they consider important, because at the time something like monkey bars, or a brick oven might not seem all that important or practical but those who may have some experience and some foresight, might know the value of an element you consider insignificant.


Around the world, there are thousands of literacy initiatives organized by governments, libraries, non-profits and for profits – many notable and successful. However, this week I pose the question: to what extent is literacy the responsibility of us, as everyday citizens in our communities?

Here are five ways that citizens are stepping up in their communities to share literacy…

1. Boys, Literacy and Role Models
As the parent of a two-year old boy, I am becoming increasingly aware of the issues surrounding boys and literacy.  This is coupled with my seven-year old daughter’s question a few months ago: “Mommy, why do only the moms volunteer in my classroom?” While I know that there are many wonderful dads homeschooling or volunteering their time in educational programs, her question struck me as important and perhaps linked to issues of learning and literacy. Research studies support this idea, such as this guide from the Ontario Ministry of Education linking the importance of male role models to improvements in boys’ literacy skills. If you want to learn more about these issues, or take action on them, Beth Hering offers a great practical guide to how men can volunteer in elementary schools. The website Guys Read also provides fantastic inspiration for starting your own ‘Guys Read Field Office’.

2. Little Free Libraries (LFL)
This is an ingeniously simple idea: build an outdoor structure that looks like a bird house but acts like a library. Visitors can take a book or leave a book (or both). This not only provides resources for literacy, but also allows people from the same neighbourhood or workplace to be exposed to one another’s interests, boosting literacy and a sense of community at the same time. The LFL website is filled with lots of great resources, both inspirational and practical.  There is also an interesting article on the phenomenon on the Abundant Community blog.

3. Street Libraries

Albany Bulb Library, created by and for homeless

Similar to the Little Free Libraries,  these libraries are run by volunteers and bring books to the people living on the street.  For example, Laura Moulton has created a library in a bike trailer in Portland. Twice a week she rides her mobile lending library around downtown. You can read more about her experiences here and at her blog.  In Australia, a similar project has taken root called the Footpath Library.  The impact of these street libraries on both literacy and community is summed up by one of the Footpath Libraries’ regulars: ‘For those of us living in crappy little rooms, on the streets, isolated in public housing flats or in cars, it’s the fact that there’s other people around to talk and gossip with, and to be treated with a bit of dignity. They’re big things. And then at the end of the night, to go back to wherever you’re sleeping and have something to read; to forget about your worries before drifting off to sleep is wonderful.” A similar project is the Albany Bulb Library – a library built by and for homeless people.

 4. Literacy in the Environment (LITE)
Retired Vancouver educator Vi Hughes and city planner Frances Warner have made it their goal to increase literacy among children by placing words in public spaces at a level at which children can see them. Examples include printing “…the words “up” and “down” on the stairs at recreation centres, write “slide” and “swing” on playground equipment… erect a sign with a simple poem and bright pictures at eye level for children … or put numbers on the floor for counting.”  The idea is catching on among city planners and non-profits seeking to promote healthy communities.

5. Rock the Drop
Each year, Teengirlz ask people to support teen literacy in their communities by simply leaving books lying around for others to pick up. A simple way to share books with one another.

The more I look, the more examples I find of great grassroots projects that connect community and literacy: the story of the Occupy Wall Street People’s Library, which is still evolving; or the library in a locker, run by a high school student who wanted to make banned books available to her fellow students.  Do you have an example from your experience?

Please click on photos to hyperlink to their authors.