Hundreds gather to brainstorm ways to make Tacoma child-centered

In just the first hour, the 300 people gathered in downtown Tacoma had heard eight speakers and gone through two brainstorming sessions involving sculpture, markers and sticky notes.

It was as if a child had planned it.

Sound like a criticism? The organizers of Tuesday’s “Symposium on our Youngest Citizens” would take it as praise. The point of the free gathering at the University of Washington’s Philip Hall was nothing less than to ask Tacoma leaders to change every way they think about children.

“What if ‘acting like a child’ was no longer an insult?” asked Alfie Kohn, the nationally recognized author and former teacher who believes society’s focus on children’s behavior and making them compliant is misguided.

Adults must radically change their attitudes toward children if they truly want to make a world that meets their needs, he said.

“Kids learn how to make decisions by making decisions, not following directions,” Kohn said.

During the four-hour session, participants were asked to imagine a world if children were the center. First, they listed every word they could think of that described children: Energetic. Honest. Uninhibited. Brave. Glee.

“One word I think of with kids is, ‘jump’,” said Stuart Young of downtown design firm BCRA, who led a small group. “They’re the only ones who do.”

Then people filled hundreds of sticky notes with “what ifs” that lined the walls of Philip Hall.

“What if we weren’t afraid of a broken arm?”

“What if there were no homework?”

“What if we taught kids that there are no failures, only learning opportunities?”

A handful of local leaders gave five-minute “lightning talks.” Local tech company CEO Janine Terrano said education has to be more than just training for the workforce. Children should be exposed to every aspect of life and culture.

“Saying we need to teach music because it helps with math is like saying Michelangelo existed to make Isaac Newton better,” she said. “They’re both valuable.”

Downtown business owners Patricia Lecy-Davis and Derek Young presented the view of the future from the point of view of children they interviewed. What do kids want more of in Tacoma? Flowers, rope swings, building blocks and step stools.

In short, children want to participate.

“They asked for tools to see things, or for things to be brought down to them,” Young said.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland made the point that a community that supports children necessarily must support parents. One local nonprofit is focusing on the parent part of the equation.

Liesl Santkuyl, Tacoma director of the nonprofit Stand For Children, said the group is running a University for Parents at three elementary school and one middle school in Tacoma.

“It’s not a parenting class,” she said. “It’s leadership development for parents.”

At lunchtime, the symposium closed with a question from David Zeeck, publisher of The News Tribune, who moderated the event.

“What do we want to do with this symposium? What does it lead to? The answer is, we don’t know,” he said.

It was up to the hundreds of participants to take their ideas into the world and start to work.