Imagining Tacoma, if children were at its center

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.

Question: How did the idea of a symposium start?

Answer: About a year ago, the Children’s Museum of Tacoma recruited a group of 14 Tacomans to go to Reggio Emilia, Italy.

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.

Q: How did they show it?

A: They display children’s artwork in public places. Children were welcomed everywhere. People paid attention to them, wherever they went. Children were greeted in the square just like adults.

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.”

Q: What will happen at the symposium?

A: It will focus on children as citizens. What if that were our premise, when we’re planning parks, workplaces, cityscapes, shopping centers and especially schools? Where’s the voice of the children in that thinking?

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.

Q: How else does education in Reggio Emilia differ?

A: Eighty percent of the children in Reggio go to preschool. Some of it is subsidized. It’s not just for the wealthy; it’s for everyone. The schools are beautiful. Aesthetics are important. Children deserve to play and learn in a place that’s beautiful. You see a lot of natural materials, light, schools open onto a central courtyard. Children move freely from space to space.

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.

Q: That sounds radically different than most American schools. Why is this better?

A: Children learn through play. That is the work of children: play. They’re learning everything. About cooperation and taking turns. Working together. How different materials work together. How to solve problems. If I can’t reach that, what are some ways I can figure that out?

In some senses, we may be trying too hard to “educate” children instead of creating environments where they can learn.

Q: How do you think our culture got to a point where the demands of daily life go against what children need?

A: We’ve become fearful to let our kids go outside. Another reason is families don’t have enough time to be home and play. Parents have hard lives. Many people are working. Sometimes two people are working in the house. Schedules are crazy. We’ve let what’s good for children go by the wayside.

Q: What would you say to people who don’t have children, or who don’t like children?

A: Don’t you think if we’re doing what’s best for children, it will be what’s best for all of us? I heard (the documentarian) Ken Burns speak last week. He said that the family of President Roosevelt saw things this way: When we all do well, we all do well.

That’s what I would say to those people: If children aren’t doing well, we’re not doing well.