Trans-generational communities. Infancy, self-managed childcare and parenthood in Rome.

Claudia Bernardi and Paolo Do

Claudia Bernardi is researcher in History at the University of Naples. Paolo Do is a researcher in Social Sciences. They currently live in Rome where they are activists of the self-managed playground, Tana dei Cuccioli. They are also members of the non-profit association, L’Erbavoglio (www.tanadeicuccioli.org).

©Zelia Bernardi Do. A4 Sketchbook.

A map is not the territory

After the 2008 crisis, Southern European countries have faced a dramatic acceleration of the reduction of public spaces besides the dismantling of health and welfare structures as a deliberate outcome of austerity measures. Also, children’s public services were seriously affected: in Italy the quality of schools decreased, and public nurseries as well as playgrounds were closed or abandoned by institutions. In Rome, kids and their families struggled more than ever before to access socio-educational services, such as school programs and extracurricular activities.

This condition is further aggravated by the current syndemic crisis, which further transformed human relationships into a bulimic access to social media that redefined “affects” and “friendship” to the detriment of bodily human relationships, while distance learning had exposed also the youngest ones to this detachment. Online learning has endangered both the community of peers, and the collective educational process. This also had potentially created a feeling of mistrust towards human contacts and temporary reclusion due to intermittent lockdowns. Those who suffer most from this situation are children and teenagers who revealed the need – even if indirectly – to process their emotions and sociality, to share experiences and feelings with others.

The recession and the resulting large-scale unemployment left parents with more time to be further involved in childcare and reproductive work. While austerity created welfare vulnerability for parents, the syndemic crisis has largely worsened the economic situation and deepened feelings of isolation.

In Rome, many small, self-run childcare projects flourished in the past few years: they are mutualistic organizations for childcare that provide both parental support as well as alternative and affordable childcare. Self-organized childhood services like nurseries, preschools and grassroots playgrounds have been created by parents and educators, and have become part of the larger community in which they are locally placed. This happened in the broader area of Prenestino-Casilino ­– a popular area of the eastern part of the city that is outside of the historical center and inside the city’s ring road – and in particular in the district of Pigneto. Since the 1990s, it has been hit by real estate market investments, causing a harsh gentrification. Today Pigneto is a densely populated district which has a disproportionately large number of children (due to high birthrates compared to the city and national ones), but few accessible public facilities and adequate services. Within this context, the active engagement of new parents in Pigneto has created self-managed spaces which have generated innovative forms of mutualism, education and childcare community-based projects.

Among many other self-organized projects which have developed new approaches to pedagogy, space, routine and organization of childhood care, it is worth mentioning some of them. Piccola Ciurma is the very first experiment that brought the alternative model of community-based childcare in the landscape of Pigneto since 2013. This is a parent and educator-run childcare project that proposed an affordable and politically radical model of education in which care givers participate directly to the educational program. As parents/care givers flank educators during the whole school day, expenses of the project are limited to one pedagogue’s salary only, on top of bills and expenses.

Crescendo in libertà is a pedagogical project initiated by parents, educators and artists who established an educational community rooted in the neighborhood involving local artisans’ workshop, senior centers, library, green parks, theaters and the variegated activities that generate the city. It combines anti-authoritarian and feminist subjectivation teaching both children and adults to be a welcoming society, which transmits knowledge through children’s participation to the very activities and spaces.

Moreover, we can mention the project “If the kids are united”, conceived by the self-managed social center Casale Garibaldicommon at work, that offers free educational and creative workshops to teenagers with the aim of building a space in which the youngest can get involved, learn new forms of expression and communication, re-explore their relationships and life context.

Last but not least, there is Tana dei Cuccioli, which is a self-managed playground for pre-school children and their care givers. This space was conceived as a public utility compensation construction of the town plan of the municipality of Rome around the 2000s in exchange for building concessions. Originally designed for both children and the elderly (as the result of a neighborhood agreement after several assemblies with citizens), over the years it has been gradually abandoned by the public institution and left to neglect and decay. In 2016, a process of civic and cultural reactivation of this abandoned space has made the park accessible and established the non-profit association, L’Erbavoglio,which takes care of the park maintenance, promotes activities for children, provides support to parents and care givers through circles coordinated by a psychotherapist, and redesigned the park as a playground through a sustainable and libertarian idea of play. Tana dei Cuccioli has turned into a solid reference for many families, children and inhabitants of Pigneto in an atmosphere of absolute openness empowered by the spirit of solidarity, mutualism, inclusion and anti-racism.

These experiences, among many others, dot the map of eastern Rome that has increasingly become a pioneering area for self-organized childhood care, parenthood networks and education. Moreover, they implicitly and continuously challenge the adult centrism of our societies as children impose their presence and needs, hence requiring residents to recognize them as actors of the public space in general. This decentralization of the adult world constituted a trans-generational practice of community building in the neighborhood that questions the subjects and space of education in the city.

It takes a village to raise a child

©Zelia Bernardi Do. A4 Sketchbook.

The African adage “it takes a village to raise a child”, which encourages commitment to the care of each other’s children, is absolutely still true. The aforementioned projects understand the term “community” as a space of educational relationships through which both caregivers and child identities can be constructed through social practices based on cooperation, collaboration and a high level of participation in managing, influencing, and co-designing their local environment. Kids and parents have the opportunity to engage with a diverse group of people and subjectivities: an experience that lifts them up and exposes them to different ways of living and engaging with the world. Caregivers’ assemblies are also children’s assemblies, not only because they share a space in that very moment, but because discussions involve children’s play, daily life, garden work and activities.

Self-organized childhood space provides children a rich and diverse social network building that is called a strong “intergenerational self”. They know they belong to something bigger than themselves. While interdependency, cohesion and mutual support constitute the very definition of community, the expansive relational dimension of these projects based on a common use of life, care and space encourages a highly diverse group of people to come together, collaborate, and share common values. At the same time, these are safe and non-judgmental spaces for parents who are seeking deeper connections to collaborate, share resources, and gain more insight and ideas into positive parenting strategies. They serve as buffers, helping parents who might otherwise be at risk to find resources, support, and coping strategies that allow them to parent more effectively and sustainably.

Embracing various identities, these spaces allow parents to socialize and share experiences to get out of the difficulties and isolation. Oftentimes parents feel stressed, judged and inadequate. Parents suffer from depression – in particular, women may also suffer with postpartum depression or so-called baby blues –, isolation and various twisting, especially in the very first years of a newborn’s life. Burnout and exhaustion are real, but without a community around to validate and enunciate these feelings within broader kin networks, many parents feel like that pain is unique to them, hence reinforcing the individualism of the self-referential and enclosed family.

At the same time, these communities of parents build forms of mutualism in order to have more effectiveness and institutional weight in the absence of local administrations, which creates a solidarity network to improve the quality of life of children and adults in the neighborhood, because a district which is not suitable for the former is not suitable for the latter either.

Tertium datur

These community-based projects are connecting groups of parents with the neighborhood in situated ways of solidarity by organizing care work that is not mediated by the market or the state. They are not public since they are alternative to state services and infrastructures and at the same time, they are not private either since they are larger than the enclosed spaces of the domestic unity.

Once kin members – beyond blood related family ones – participate in the care and education of humans, the historical and unsolved tangle called ‘childhood’ reveals itself as a ferment of social needs and affections, collective desires and relationships, social and political institutions.

Thus, these community-based, self-organized childhood services turned the neighborhood into a space for care, broadening the home of the Western mononuclear family into wider, extended families, intergenerational and peer relationships. They do not aim to abolish or directly attack the home and nuclear family, but seek ways to extend and support different kinds of family and household; being capable of breaking the “occupation” of childhood by family and its intimate privatization, the parental community focused on childcare finds the importance of civil cooperation and social coexistence in the indomitable bond of staying together by building a common project. Being together and growing together frees kids from the risk of being the exclusive possession of their parents. In this regard, we may recall the historical cases of Lev Tolstoj, Asja Lacis, Tom Seidmann-Freud, Janusz Korczak, the primary school teacher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Gianni Rodari among others, in which childhood had lost its linear aspects of innocence and submission.

We care together

©Zelia Bernardi Do. A4 Sketchbook.

The extended community of parents contributes to redefining an alternative environment to the economic and social life centered on the traditional patriarchal family. The subjective forms of engagement and political practices of fathers in these local, self-organized childhood services affirm a form of masculinity by supporting unconventional parental roles beyond the gendered division of labor i.e. emerging models of caring masculinities and post-patriarchal fatherhood in the peculiar cultural context of Southern Europe.

Several researchers have been discussing the notion of ‘involved’ fathers in childcare related to the entrance of women in the paid labor force and a rise in the number of dual-earner families. In other studies about ‘new’ fathering, the challenging models of fatherhood have been related to different strategies of dealing with joblessness and unemployment, framing the father’s active participation in childcare as part of the standard domestic work. These approaches are still embedded into an idea of the mononuclear family that relies only on blood-families and private/state facilities, and often do not undermine the overall patriarchal system framed by the most recent feminist perspective on care ethics and social reproduction.

A grassroots playground or a self-managed nursery are both sites for an emerging gender repertoire, as well as a place for ‘innovative’ re-subjectivation of males and their masculinity towards a meaningful involvement in childcare, for dismantling the gender division of childrearing.

These community-based services consider motherhood and fatherhood not as ‘natural’ experiences, but rather as a historical product constructed and understood through social and cultural processes.

These collective childcare projects in the Pigneto neighborhood encompass the potential and the possibility for fathers to perform masculinity in different ways, to perform non-normative masculinities, or to claim for a reflection upon and a revision of the very notions of masculinity and femininity. It affirms a ‘new’ and ‘involved’ fatherhood beyond the traditional, polarized, gendered roles of the father as ‘provider’, and the mother as main caregiver, in an urban environment beyond the predominant representation of family space. These urban communities are able to deconstruct the ‘traditional’, but still prominent ‘male breadwinner’ model for fathers, which sees the man more involved in the sphere of paid work than in the sphere of reproductive work. They allow fathers to deconstruct paternity based on labor and put into practice a fatherhood as ‘care giving’ to children, equally involved in material care and activities of pedagogical nurturing. The fathers who emerge from these experiences are men engaged in childcare against the patriarchal models of hegemonic masculinity that also overcome the label of ‘Mr. Mom’.

Community-based projects suggest solutions for the reconfiguration of fatherhood by reframing the broader problem of social division of trans-generational care and an innovative perspective for wider parental identities.

A very special use of the public space

At the same time, these communities are rethinking the relation between urban space and socialization of childcare. These types of self-managed services are embedded in the informal spaces of the city devoted to children, by redefining the use of squares and gardens, by giving these urban areas a new life. They question – in a collective way – the pedagogical and educational features of childhood in the metropolitan context, by widening the collective life that takes place every day outside the school as well as outside their domestic unities.

Thus, childhood is always elsewhere, but this elsewhere must be looked for in the cities we live in, in the abandoned areas reconquered by active parents, or in the city’s spaces earned by children who transform them into ‘territories of play’. They are the places for the possible, that is, living places that prove to be vital for trans-generational growth, where learning means to share and playing becomes disruptive.

The collective childcare projects shift the spasmodic securitization of spaces and children towards the necessary forms of freedom, and rethink the city landscape as a “playable city” where the space to play is not so much a special place, but a special use of the public space. Starting from the practices of parents’ communities, we discovered the need to observe the city through the eyes of the child: through their amazement and non-constructed world, we are able to create a trans-generational space together with those who are willing to educate and be educated by them.

“The possible, the possible, otherwise I’ll suffocate!”

There is no experience of childcare that does not refer directly to the imagination that often speaks a foreign language incomprehensible to the classical, codified formulation of politics, but which maintains the desire for social transformations. Taking the side of imagination is tout court a political gaze on the world. A gaze to recognize the possibility not to tell what happens or what has happened, but what can still happen: caring childhood means to aspire that our world could be, in one way or another, a better place.

Childhood shakes us, intrigues us, displaces us. Childhood is always an elsewhere for unprecedented, creative stipulations of a new historical path, even if this is not to be sought elsewhere in the world of an unexpected tomorrow. On the contrary, it must be found in the experiences of the present. The imagination of the let’s pretend embodies the dreams and expectations of monsters, demons, clowns, of cruelty and poetry… that is something that recalls the ‘repertoire of the potential, of the hypothetical, of what neither was nor perhaps will be but could have been’, as Giordano Bruno wrote about the spiritus phantasticus (Calvino, 1993, p.93)

So, these community-based projects are the affirmation of the possible that follows those who are free to move in different directions; they allow us to explore alternative scenarios and to figure out courses of events with other endings where things could happen:

If there is a sense of reality, and no one will doubt that it has its justification for existing, then there must also be something we can call a sense of possibility. Those who have it do not say, for example: here this or that has happened, it will happen, it must happen; but he invents: here this or that could, could or should happen. If he is told that something is as it is, he will think: well, it probably could also be otherwise … A possible experience or truth is not the same as a real experience or truth minus its “reality value” but has — according to its partisans, at least — something quite divine in it, a fire, a surge, a willingness to build and a conscious utopianism that does not escape reality but sees it as a project, something yet to be invented (Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, p. 22).

Today, more than ever before, we need imagination in order not to return to that normality that led us to social distance; we need imagination to rethink the world facing the catastrophic consequences of the syndemic we are experiencing. Between imagination and reality there is a dense coming and going, a thick cobweb. Imagination is not just an idle mental amusement, but is always busy ruminating, digesting and recreating the real. It is effective, active, capable of transfiguring reality and not merely an activity without consequences in reality.

Borrowing some of Vygotsky’s intuitions, from one side, imagination is a function of the richness and variety of each person’s available experience: ‘everything the imagination creates is always based on elements taken from reality, from a person’s previous experience’. It would be a miracle indeed if imagination could create something out of nothing or if it had other sources than past experience for its creations: ‘imagination always builds using materials supplied by reality. It may create more and more new levels of combination, combining first the initial elements of reality (cat, chain, oak), then secondarily combining fantastic elements (mermaid, wood sprite), and so forth, and so on. But the ultimate elements, from which the most fantastic images, those that are most remote from reality, are constructed, these terminal elements will always be impressions made by the real world’ (Vygotsky, 2004, p. 8).

On the other side, the product of the imagination, once created, can expand the experience of reality allowing you to think about what has never been perceived, so that it is reality itself that relies on the imagination: it is the means ‘by which a person’s experience is broadened, because he can imagine what he has not seen, can conceptualize something from another person’s narration and description of what he himself has never experienced’ (Vygotsky, 2004, p.8).

If we imagine a world freed from exploitation that does not yet exist, what we compose in our mind is indeed the result of the imagination that does not reproduce things perceived in a previous lived experience, but creates the possibility of new real combinations.

Such combinations, though sometimes rapidly swept into other fantastic doughs, no more consistent than a flash, remind us that nothing we can imagine is absolutely impossible.

Today, more than ever, we need political imagination. If imagination and politics are two rather generic semantic fields, the association of imagination with politics does not mean replacing politics with the fantastic, the struggle with dreams, the analysis of reality with that of imaginative ‘childish’ representations. Rather, it is a matter of claiming a different look at stereotypes and social constructions through the unusual, of making tools available to work on new acquisitions between imagination and reality. Similarly, the association of the imaginary with the social offers tools for evaluating things in the light of those questions that common sense would like to avoid, thus affirming alternative proposals of community-building to existing social formations.

The word imagination does not mean so much to the amusement of the daydreamer in solitude, nor is it fantasizing that seeks escape from reality; rather, it is something that always builds with the real, on the real: it produces reality in a neighborhood to cast a divergent gaze on the existing. Imagination is constituent of ‘everything that was not there before’, as Bruno Munari reminds us. Isn’t now the time for possibility, for the experimentability of different orders, for the reversibility of the obvious, for the acceptability of alternatives?


Lev Vygotsky, “Imagination and Creativity in Childhood”, in Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, vol. 42, no. 1, January–February 2004, pp. 7–97.

Calvino, Italo (1993), Six Memos for the Next Millennium the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 1985-86, Vintage International.

Musil, Robert, The Man Without Qualities, Picador, 2017