Fostering Community Cohesion – Children are at the heart of community cohesion. In this article, I explore what community cohesion means from the child’s perspective and how children’s everyday interactions contribute to our sense of local connectedness, belonging and pride.
I am lucky enough to lead an amazing research team of psychologists, sociologists, network analysts and historians on a project called Beyond School Gates: Children’s Contribution to Community Integration, which is funded by the Nuffield Foundation and the British Academy. Through our research, we want to rewrite the narrative around community cohesion by helping people see just how important children’s everyday lives are to the cohesion experienced in neighbourhoods, towns and cities. Our founding belief is that children’s day-to-day interactions and friendships are a launchpad for adults to connect across diversity.
What is community cohesion?
Community cohesion revolves around connection. For communities to be cohesive, individuals need to feel that they can connect with others and that these connections happen across diversity. Community cohesion is strong when people feel able to comfortably interact with others who have a different ethnicity, language or religion to them.
As researchers, we can measure community cohesion by plotting the connections that people make on a day-to-day basis. For example, we could ask you to reflect on the day you’ve had so far and to plot the social connections you have had up until this point and who these connections have been with.
- Beyond your immediate family, what conversations have you had today? Who have they been with?
- What moments of acknowledgement (e.g. a smile or nod at someone passing by) have you had? Who was involved in these moments?
- Have you physically connected with anyone who is not in your family, for example, through a hug or handshake?
If you are regularly having moments of acknowledgement and more in-depth interaction with people who come from a different background to you, this is a good indicator that your local area is high in community cohesion.
Our research suggests that in many ways, children are better at connecting with others than grown-ups. This is for two reasons.
First, children have the language of play as a way to immediate connection with others. While we might feel too inhibited and nervous to strike up a conversation with a stranger on a park bench, children regularly use play as a vehicle to interact with other children whom they have never met before. When you take a child to the park for example, it’s more likely that they will end up playing with another child than it is that you will end up having a chat with another grown-up.
Second, children bring a lot less baggage than us to their interactions. While it’s hard for us to escape our prejudices and stereotypes, children’s ways of thinking about others are less rigid. They are more likely to be curious about differences than to be judgmental. They might ask questions like ‘Why are you wearing that?’ or ‘Why are you eating that?’ when they come across differences, rather than pretending that the difference does not exist and then avoiding interaction.
The influence of children’s connections
Children’s connections pave the way for adults’ connections, which in turn become our measure of community cohesion.
Take for example a child at nursery who makes friends with a child from a different ethnic and religious background to them. This lays the groundwork for the parents and carers of both children to interact with each other, even if they are nervous about doing so or would not do so unless their children were connected.
The adults might begin to smile at each other during pick-up time because they are aware of their children’s friendship. This might build into talking to one another during pick-up time. It might go further and lead to the coordination of attendance at birthday parties or playdates. This might even lead to visiting each other at home and potentially even create a new friendship between the adults. These interactions – even if they remain at the stage of just acknowledging one another – are fundamental for community cohesion.
How can nurseries support children’s contribution to community cohesion?
Since children are leading the way with community cohesion, part of the work of the nursery is just to stand back and allow this to happen.
Sometimes as adults, we can get in the way of ourselves when it comes to supporting children to connect. We can silence children’s questions about diversity for example, because we find them awkward or we’re not quite sure how to respond to them. If, as nurseries and professionals, we can embrace children’s questions about differences and respond to these with confidence and curiosity, we can support connections to flourish.
The other thing nurseries can do is reinforce children’s relationships and their potential positive influence on families by giving parents a chance to meet one another in a comfortable and welcoming space. If parents wait in a reception area rather than outside during pick-up time, they are more likely to acknowledge one another and start up a conversation about their children’s interactions with each other. Professionals can support this further by making a point of telling parents about the connections that children are forming. This enables children to act as role models for their parents and have a direct influence on the connections that manifest between the adults.