I volunteer for two reasons: to serve and to learn. One of my volunteering projects delivered a very unexpected lesson.
For 15 years, I have collaborated with our local public school system to design and build playgrounds at elementary schools. At Twin Oaks Elementary School, the old play area had three pieces of equipment, the most curious of which was a small, rusty red gate. My students and I began calling it “the gate to nowhere,” because that is what it was, literally.
On a later visit, I asked the principal about the gate to nowhere. She said that originally, the gate was the entry to a playground that was so rundown that it had been removed for safety reasons, but the gate was left there.
“It’s the kids’ favorite piece of equipment,” she continued.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, during recess, teachers bring the students out to the playground and line them up in front of the gate. Teachers ask the kids where they want to go, anywhere in the universe, and when the first child in line thinks of a suitable place, she tells that child to run through the gate, and the child yells where they are going as they run through the gate. It’s the children’s absolute favorite thing to do on the playground.”
I learned a lesson in humility that day. What we had arrogantly labeled the “gate to nowhere” actually served as the kids’ “portal to anywhere.” With that rusty piece of iron, the Twin Oaks teachers were sending a message to their students: you matter; you can do anything.
Marybeth Lima is a professor in LSU’s Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department and Director of the Center for Community Engagement, Learning, and Leadership. Her commentary is drawn from her book, “Building Playgrounds, Engaging Communities: Creating Safe and Happy Spaces for Children,” published by LSU Press.
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