Want to build a stronger community? Invite your neighbors to a play date. (And don’t forget the face paint.)
By Arianna Koudounas
Aug 26, 2019 | 12:34 PM
On Aug. 13, I turned 31. I wanted to celebrate by doing something positive to promote joy, creativity, and social cohesion in my neighborhood. I work as a regional transportation planner by day, and by night and on weekends I try my best to create the world I want to live in: a friendlier, happier, more compassionate world.
My idea: a Pop-up Play Day at a park in my neighborhood. Humans are meant to play, and on one Saturday this month, that’s just what we did. We had a fantastic turnout, new friendships were formed, and everyone had fun.
The park where we convened rests on Eutaw Place, which was a redline back in the days when racist policies prevented African Americans from living in certain parts of town. This legacy remains like a scar on Baltimore, with average home values in neighborhoods on the northeastern side of Eutaw double that of their counterparts in my neighborhood to the southwest. There are many more such dividing lines throughout Baltimore and this country and beyond. While policy initiatives can support better economic integration of neighborhoods — including graduated property taxes and more social support for low-resource neighborhoods — they may not always address the equally important issue of social cohesion among neighborhoods. There are simple ways as individuals and neighborhoods that we can promote social cohesion and build community connectedness, especially in rapidly gentrifying areas.
You too can follow the example that I used to bring a Pop-up Play Day into my neighborhood by taking a few simple steps:
1. “Play” should be your only agenda. We came together simply to be together. Everyone can appreciate relaxing beneath the shade, sipping lemonade and enjoying good company — and that enabled our group dynamic, which included a cross-section of ages and backgrounds, to feel friendly and care-free.
2. Set your details, make a flyer, and hand it out. I started by going to my neighborhood association meeting and confirming that the park where I planned to hold the event was indeed a registered public park, so that there weren’t issues of liability. I then set the date and time, made a flyer, and handed it out to folks in my neighborhood, including anchor institutions like places of worship and community centers.
3. Recruit through one-on-one conversations when possible. The most effective recruitment strategy proved to be having one-on-one conversations with my neighbors. I introduced myself and stated the aim of the event: “Hi — I’m Arianna, I live around the block, and I’m organizing a play day for kids in our neighborhood on Saturday afternoon. The details are on this flyer. We’ll have face painting and sidewalk chalk, lemonade and snacks.” Kids would get wide-eyed when I mentioned the face paint, so I’d then follow-up to the kids with: “Now I really want you to think about what you want painted on your face, and we’ll do it.” Giving the kids something tangible to look forward to only stoked their enthusiasm: Every kid I asked about their face painting plans showed up. As my partner astutely suggested to me, it’s like voting: If you discuss the details in advance, you’re more likely to show up. Now if only we could get face painters at every polling station!
4. Keep it simple. The park had natural shade from wonderful old trees, several benches and four tabletops for crafting and eating. We had ample room for sidewalk chalking, and two stone mounds designed for play gave the bigger kids a sense of adventure. My neighbors lent me a folding table. I purchased a five-gallon jug for lemonade. A few packs of cookies, bags of pretzels and chips, and a couple of sacks of clementines. Some boxes of sidewalk chalk, face paint, and a few coloring books. Friends and neighbors brought some additional snacks and supplies. People were just there to have a good time.
5. PLAY!!! And play some more. While I was painting one boy’s face, I asked him, “How often do you think we should do this?” He smiled and said, “I wish this could happen every day, but I know that’s not possible. So how about the third Saturday of every month?” Children never cease to amaze me. While I’m not sure when we’ll next be convening, it will now be a monthly gathering!