By Bridget Manley, publisher
Valentine’s Day has different meanings for each of us. For parents, it can mean filling out valentines for every kid in class, volunteering to send in the party napkins and chips and choosing the “cool kind” of red tee-shirt from your kid’s closet.
For the preschoolers at the Young Children Program at JMU, it means something a little different. They call it Kindness Day, and the 3 and 4 year olds spend two weeks collecting and painting rocks and filling them with words meant to make people happy.
When my firstborn started attending preschool in September 2016, we were in the middle of that vitriolic election cycle. I was sending my wide-eyed little 3 year old into a world that felt hard and mean.
But while the world is big and complicated, preschool is the Learning Lab for How To Be A Human Being. Preschool teachers have what I call “endurance patience” — the ability to herd these little kittens through the year as they work through new and unfamiliar feelings.
And these little kids — eager to learn, full of excitement and low on fine motor control — practice being human in all types of ways. They work through big emotions. They celebrate their differences. They take care of each other.
And they get really excited when they start planning for Kindness Day.
For two weeks leading up to the big day, they try to come up with the nicest things they can say to someone else. They are asked to think of small phrases that will bring joy to someone else who finds them.
“You can do it!”
“Be kind to yourself!”
Once the rocks are painted and dry, the students spend the week going to different areas on the JMU campus to hide them or give them to people.
During one outing, an eager 3 year old approached a JMU student intently studying her computer and handed her a rock painted pink with the words: “You are loved.”
“It just made my day, right before my exam,” said the student as giggling 3 year olds skip away.
I watched as college students, some residing in the zone between “Still A Kid” and “About To Adult” lose their cool when a 3 year old handed them a rock, or a flower, or a sheet of stickers.
“It was the best thing ever,” gushed student Abby LaFrance, holding a flower. “They are so adorable.”
“It’s definitely very nice, especially with the stress of school,” student Rachel Accorsi, admiring her rock. “It’s just a little piece of happiness.”
The preschoolers have been all over town and campus this week hiding the rocks. They have even included a hashtag so they might find out later who found the rocks and how it made them feel. (#jmurocks)
Three year old Fenna told me that it felt good to give kindness rocks to people. “We want people to feel happy,” she said proudly.
As the kids hide their rocks outside, it’s hard to feel anything but happiness, even in the dreary rain. Watching little kids be proud to give away something they made to make someone feel better is a special kind of happy.
This is the last year of preschool for our family. Soon there will be reading and writing and homework and sports and friends and all the joy and the heartbreak that goes along with it. I’ve been told by experts in the field (a.k.a. parents of grown children) that time only warps into light speed from here.
It’s also another presidential election year. Ready or not, it’s coming. Kindness rocks can’t solve the world’s problems, but right now it feels like a decent start.
I’ll try to squirrel away this memory; that of these bouncy happy little kids, full of hope and kindness and love, hiding painted rocks for strangers to find.
I’ll remember that those people felt joy at finding a rock that said “share your love” or “smile often!”
Maybe the finder won’t know who left the rock. The kids won’t know who found their rock. But kindness was given, and kindness was received, and people felt happy.
And that feels like love on this Valentine’s Day.
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