Yesterday afternoon, I was working away in my office when I noticed the sounds of a basketball — bounce, bounce, bounce, thunk, swish!, bounce — on my driveway. We actually have two hoops here, one slightly lower than standard height and one toddler sized. But I was the only one home at the time, and, yes, my fingers were still perched above my keyboard. When I went to the front door to see what I could see, there was a group of five or six kids in my driveway, most about Middle School age, a couple Elementary, but I didn’t recognize any of them. I admit, at first I was just a little startled that someone would randomly think to play ball in someone else’s driveway. When I opened the front door to check on them, one of the boys looked up at me with that recognition in his eyes that said, “Shoot! I didn’t even think about what we were doing!” Then he said, quite simply, “Do you want us to leave?”
So there I was, on the brink of a choice: I could be that old fuddy-duddy in the neighborhood who all the kids are scared of and shoo them away, snarling something to the effect of “You’re smashing all my plants!” OR I could use the opportunity to a) give the kids a safe place to play (we have a nice big driveway), b) encourage these kids to be kids by playing outside instead of locked away on video games and c) start on that first step of creating community. We haven’t been in the neighborhood long, so we really don’t know very many people, including kids, since we’re not quite in school yet. When we moved in, it was getting to be the colder months, so there wasn’t much outside activity. One of our neighbors came over to introduce themselves with a plate of Christmas cookies (always welcome in our house!) and we periodically see another neighbor out in his yard, though infrequently. So my family is the one that is out in the front yard all the time, kids loud enough for all around us to hear, making the noises associated with playing baseball, trucks, soccer, bubble blowing, riding bikes, etc. We’ve seen another little boy down the street a couple of times, just briefly, and my eldest will often do whatever he can to be outside when he sees the other boy, trying to work up the courage to ask him to play.
So in answer to their question, “Do you want us to leave?”, I moved the car out of the driveway, got out some of our balls and encouraged them to play. After they had played for a while and then gone on their way, I went out again to collect the balls and heard a call from down the street. And what do you know, it was one of the basketball players, calling out to say, “Thanks again!” – the same little boy my son has been hoping to play with. I wish my kids had been home at the time. We’ll have to have them over for some basketball again soon!
Community is something that takes time. It takes being open. It takes starting the conversation. We’ve lived in a number of different communities throughout the years, some with more of a sense of neighborhood than others, but what I’ve always noticed is that once we start approaching people, even with just a simple “hello!”, the dialogue will flow. Community will be what you make of it and how open you are to encouraging it. Here are my tips for creating community wherever you are:
- Smile and say hello – it may sound silly, but it is amazing to me how many people keep their heads down and shut each other out with their body language.
- Provide opportunity to interact with your neighbors – whether it is playing/weeding/looking at clouds, whatever, get outside and let people see who you are and your personality. It is much easier to approach someone if they are already outside and don’t appear to be cranky, rude or too busy.
- Ask for help or advice – if you have a neighbor who has a beautiful garden, ask them for tips! Even if you aren’t a big gardener yourself, people love to talk about things they are knowledgeable about and it will open the dialogue up to other subjects.
- Don’t be rude – realize that especially children can sometimes do things, like running across your grass or playing basketball without asking, without intending to cause any harm and often it is just because they don’t know. If someone does something you don’t want them to, talk to them in a calm manner and come at it from the angle that they probably didn’t know better. You’ll be amazed at how much better others respond when you are kind (usually).
- If you’re up for it, put together a neighborhood picnic some sunny Sunday afternoon. Set the grill up on your driveway and either post some signs up a few days before or just tell anyone walking by, “Grill is going if you want anything cooked!”
- If you have kids, get to know the other kids in the neighborhood. Not only does this help you know what types of friends your children are hanging out with, but you may also find some responsible babysitters.
We can make community wherever we go. All it takes is one commonality and a willingness of spirit.