Golden Arches of Community Building

Updated: Sep 16, 2019

So I’m writing this blog post at my local McDonald’s Play Place this afternoon while watching my daughter “learn and burn.”

Burning off excess energy is an absolute must for any four year old, and the learning opportunities here are plentiful.

For years, I was one of those people who held a useless bias against McDonald’s. And while it’s true that they serve food that is mostly different configurations of fat and carbohydrate combinations, it turns out that they are a valuable community resource. Don’t believe me? Check out the best selling book, Dignity by Chris Arnade. In it he describes the phenomenon of McDonald’s restaurants all across America gradually evolving into ad hock for-profit community centers. (You can read a great interview with Chris about the book, here ) McDonald’s is one of the very few places in America that the middle class and “comfortable” segments of our society overlap and interact with the struggling, poor, and homeless segments of our society - and no one even raises an eyebrow at each other.

If you want to see the true diversity of America, no matter where you are, go to McDonald’s. Looking around I see a variety of race, color, creed, sexual orientation, and educational level. Just at this location in Roanoke, VA, I’ve heard eight distinctly different languages being spoken (German, Arabic, Greek, Swahili, Korean, Tagalog, Spanish, and English), seen more colors of human skin than I could even classify, talked with same sex parents about their kids, first time moms, a dad with six kids trying to get some work done on the weekend that he has custody, grandmas that make sure the kids say grace before they open their Happy Meals, and uncles who take their niece’s soccer team out for ice cream after they lost a tough game.

Outside of the PlayPlace, I’ve seen sad people in tears, people celebrating, people in need of somewhere to just be indoors for a while, groups of business professionals, homeless people, and people falling in love over a cups of coffee that are too hot to drink just yet.

Right now I see my daughter climbing, crawling, sliding, building confidence in her abilities and physical skills while she learns about social situations, emotional interplay, following the rules even when everyone else isn’t, building fast friendships, dealing with rejection, and most importantly, she gets to see her peers interacting with their families and friends. There are so many different dynamics here and she is seeing them all for what they are, normal.

I’m gonna be totally honest and let you know that coming to McDonald’s PlayPlace started out as being about playing somewhere that had air conditioning on a 95 degree day. But I started to notice that McDonald’s is where I can teach my daughter so many things with more efficacy than I can at home or her teachers can in pre-school.

Some parents let their kids go up the slide, climb on the outside of the play equipment, let their two year olds or 14 year olds play in the playground designed and insured for kids aged 4 to 12, or be rude to the other kids - and almost 75% of the kids aren’t wearing their socks. (To be fair, it is summer and most of those kids arrived here in flip-flops or sandals). Each of these is a blatant violation of the rules and nobody is calling them on it.

And here I am getting on to my daughter each time she tries to follow a kid up the slide or tries to climb on the outside of the structure like some of the other kids are doing. Hardly seems fair, does it? “The other kids are doing it without penalty, why shouldn’t I?”

Now, by contrast, there are some other parents who are much stricter and go above and beyond the PlayPlace rules. They don’t allow yelling/screaming. They require that their kids play with, or at least offer to include everyone if they are playing tag or hide and seek.

I see my daughter watching these interactions and making connections in her brain about how expectations and behaviors can be very different - even from people in the same situations.

Some kids exclude her from their groups, others invite her to play right from the start.

My daughter gets her feelings hurt from time to time. And I’m sure there are times she is mean or disrespectful to other kids while I can’t see or hear her. When she “isn’t playing right” she gets excluded. If she is being too loud the other kids start to avoid her. Mistakes are made and lessons are learned in real time from real situations.

When she wants something, she orders her own items at the counter and makes sure to use her please and thank yous.

She once saw a transgender man come out of the lady’s room (that he is required to use because the people who make rules about these things don’t actually think about the realities that they are creating) and that sparked a remarkable conversation from my little girl about how people see each other.

There was a time, not so long ago, that I thought I would never take my kid to McDonald’s.

Now I see that the parents that are avoiding McDonald’s are also avoiding a huge educational opportunity and I feel sorry for them. I get that people are worried about their kids and the junk food at McDonald’s, but what better place to teach your kid that we can choose yogurt or apple slices most of the time, and on special occasions we can order ice cream and cookies instead. Help them build the muscles they will need to resist temptation by showing them how to do it in person.

Please don ‘t think that I’m saying McDonald’s is perfect. It’s still got loads of problems in terms of carbon footprint, low wages, and yes, plenty of terrible nutritional choices make up most of their menu. But you shouldn’t dismiss them outright either. The best way to change what you don’t like about McDonald’s is to ask them in person. Go buy yogurt and apple slices there more often and they will start offering more fresh fruit and wholesome options because people are buying them.

We still go to the library and we still go to our local parks and events frequently. I’m not suggesting that McDonald’s is a replacement for those cultural activities. McDonald’s is, however, a great addition to those activities, and if you’ve been avoiding them, maybe it’s time you looked at them through a new lens.

(In case you’re wondering, McDonald’s hasn’t given me anything at all in exchange for writing this blog post.)

Copyright © 2019  Ripley M Johnson