A conversation with Pat Shuman is full of “what ifs.”
What if everyone spoke to one child in their neighborhood during the day? What if we asked children how to make things more fair? What if we let kids do what comes naturally — play — and just got out of their way?
“We have this tendency to say, ‘when you get older,’ or ‘we’re taking care of the children because they’re our future,’ but we would like to say, ‘let’s focus on what children are capable of now,’ because they’re capable of quite a lot,” said Shuman, a former corporate executive who now is president of the board of the Tacoma Community College Foundation.
While she spent most of her career with Weyerhaeuser, she also was a Head Start teacher and worked at the early learning center at TCC when it was in the basement of a church. She’s volunteered with the Children’s Museum of Tacoma for decades.
Shuman leads the committee that’s organizing a symposium, scheduled for Sept. 23 at the University of Washington Tacoma, on how to make Tacoma a more child-centered community. She spoke recently with The News Tribune on what life might be like if children really came first.
In the 1940s, the city started a unique approach to preschool education because they were recovering from the war and they wanted something hopeful and beautiful for their children. They created these amazing preschools. They have become a model for schools around the world.
We studied for a week. We immersed ourselves in their approach to preschool education. One of the things we noticed was the whole community’s respect and regard for young children.
The children had created guidebooks about their city, and you would see traces of that throughout the city. There was a tunnel to get from the city to a center, and there was a huge display of drawings, done by children, of bicycles. We thought, well wouldn’t it be cool if Tacoma were more like that?
We came home and tried to decide how to share what we learned. We didn’t want to have a meeting and say, “We went to Italy. Let me show you some slides.”
We’re going to talk about how to get to know children better. How to make life a little easier for children in our neighborhood even if they’re not our children. How to involve children in solving serious community problems. Vibrant communities aren’t just for 20-, 30-, 40-somethings.
We also are going to talk about the workplace. The workplace could be friendlier to parents and children, but also the importance of raising happy children so they become good employees in the future.
One of the really striking things they do is that kids are allowed to work on projects for extended periods of time. They work on things for many months. They’re given what’s called a provocation. Then they have some materials to work with, some questions to answer, some things to experiment with, and then they’re allowed to see where that takes them. Teachers watch and document what children are saying or doing, and they make sure children have what they need to take work and play further. This can go on and on and on.
In some senses, we may be trying too hard to “educate” children instead of creating environments where they can learn.
That’s what I would say to those people: If children aren’t doing well, we’re not doing well.