Being active locally
It's families - whatever their make-up - that raise children. This allows little ones to absorb, as if by osmosis, life skills such as home cooking, gardening, cleaning, breastfeeding, pet care, repair jobs, etc. (as well as turning on the TV, where to hunt for lost trainers/keys/purse, putting out the recycling, etc.)
But as the well-known Nigerian proverb spells out, mum or dad can't do it all themselves because 'it takes a village to raise a child'.
Though few of us have an extended family living nearby, we can create a similar effect by becoming better acquainted with the people who live in our neighbourhood. They may shop at similar stores, visit the same doctor or place of worship, or simply know when the recycling is collected.
That shared experience can be very powerful when it comes to making changes in your neighbourhood. It's a glue that helps us trust each other and can inspire us to keep on doing, chatting, pestering and organising, because we know it's making the place so much better for us (and all the kids).
Ready, steady, inspiration
1. Be inspired on holiday
In France it is normal to have great al fresco food markets and summer Sundays when the main town streets are closed to traffic. In the UK some towns and cities hold one car-free day in September or close roads for an annual event, like a street party or community fete. If holiday tales involve nightmare flights or tend to break your carbon budget you might find yourself thinking more about how to get around.
2. Be inspired on a work trip
In Holland (and Germany) it is normal to cycle - not just because it is flat - but because many urban areas are designed to give cars and pedestrians equal rights. If vehicles are moving slower then the streets get safer. Already many places in the UK are working to make residential streets 20mph zones. As you walk around a 20mph zone you'll find that it is a much friendlier place - car drivers will catch your eye and may wave you across the road. And you may wave or smile to thank them.
3. Be empowered by new laws
Thanks to the Sustainable Communities Act, which was passed in October 2007, there are now more formal ways of greening the neighbourhood. This law can help save local post offices, local shops, independently-owned pubs, brings local community representatives on to council panels - with a stress on under-represented groups (young people, older people, ethnic minorities, etc.). There are some useful info sheets about how this act works and how to make full use of it at localworks.org and unlockdemocracy.org.uk.
4. Be ready to help your nearest school
There are close to 350,000 governor places in England, making governors the largest volunteer force in the country. You do not have to have a child at the school, you could volunteer to be a governor even if you're in the planning stages of having a baby. Most governorships are for three years, but there is often an opportunity to be co-opted without the need for an election. Find out more at www.direct.gov.uk.en/parents or visit www.sgoss.org.uk.
5. Copy a really good idea
Already there are hundreds of towns copy-cating eco-initiatives such as the plastic-bag-free movement, begun in Modbury, Devon in 2007 and now embraced by more than 100 towns.
The slow food movement is a little older, begun in 1989 as an antidote to fast food and fast life. It began in Bra, Italy but in the UK has a stronghold in the south-west, and Bristol is the unofficial capital. Are there other local people wanting to unleash a transition town plan in your area? The first transition town in the UK was Totnes, but since then Lewes, Brighton & Hove, Forres, Lewes, Maidenhead, Omar, Tring and York are all working to respond to the twin challenges of dealing with peak oil and tackling climate change, find out more at www.transitiontowns.org.
Even the Government is trying to create at least four new eco towns - so-called because they will be drive-free zones with parking at the town edges, allotments and recycling facilities - although resistance from neighbours is high because they are likely to be built in rural areas.
Easy ideas to copy include growing food in the front garden, tool shares/swaps, pot luck feasts, clothes exchange, bookclubs, CRAGS - carbon rationing action groups - campaigning groups, veg co-ops and shared food deliveries.
Bigger ideas ripe for copying include:
- Community green spaces and gardens (e.g., Todmorden
in Yorkshire is turning itself into one big allotment)
- Off-road footpaths and cycle tracks
- Farmers' markets, see www.farmersmarkets.net
- Festivals (art, gastro, music, etc.)
6. Celebrate the good things at a neighbourhood party
A summer fête, winter festival or street party is often a local highlight. It may be that where you live there's already an event pencilled in, but it could be so much better - or it could be in need of baby-friendly suggestions from a local like you.
Even if you still feel overwhelmed by parenthood you lose nothing by making sure you attend a community event. At the very least you may meet people with children the same age as yours who will wave at you whenever they next see you in the area - at the best you might even make new friends.
'Helping organise our street party was also a very doable community activity with young children, but best to do it as part of a group - www.streetsalive.net tells you all you'll ever need to know about street parties.' - Gaby, 36, with Barney, nine, and Toby, four
CASE STUDY: The village experience
To give your baby the benefit of a village experience, you can try to emulate the way real villagers still integrate their children into every part of their lives. Anna Craven, 68, trained as an anthropologist and spent 20 years living in remote parts of Africa and the Pacific Islands. Her two children, now 31 and 28, were born in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, but when Anna's marriage broke up she moved back to Yorkshire and there worked out how to recreate the best bits of community life.
‘You pass on life skills subliminally - by creating family habits rather than instructing children what to do as if they were in a classroom. If you think of Inuit or Ghanian village communities the children learn by example. They watch, they imitate, they're not told.
'When they start experimenting they develop their own skills. Adults do things with their children - making pots, farming, looking after younger siblings - things that are appropriate to their age and capability. They let even small children handle large bush knives. They don't expect a lot from a child before it 'knows sense' at around the age of four, or 'can reason well' at around eight or ten. Because we don't live close to our extended families, or have a safe community space under the village mango tree, we have lost these skills of socialisation.
‘You can bring this experience back. You can let them do things and learn to observe. For instance, you could give your children a little patch of garden to grow their own lettuce. It's so exciting - even if the slugs eat a lot of the crop.
'Or take children to see lambs being born and let them observe what happens to the placenta - sheepdogs eat it. Tell them that sheep can recognise up to 50 faces, then see if they can pick out different ewes in the flock.
'Early on you can show them how to use phones and tape recorders properly rather than telling them not to touch. Or go for walks in the woods and identify plants and flowers, and trees by silhouette, by their seeds, flowers or leaves. As children get a little bit older give them adult handbooks - for dog breeds, shells, trees, sea creatures, birds and even posters for sheep - which are packed with information: make it a kind of detective game. Involve them in anything to do with practical life, so that they grow up wanting to learn for themselves.'
This is an edited extract from Homemade Kids: Thrifty, Creative and Eco-friendly ways to raise your child by Nicola Baird (Vermillion, £10.99)
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