Kids Are Wonderfully Weird. They Need Spaces That Celebrate and Encourage That | Opinion

Kids need places that are truly weird. For as free-thinking as kids naturally are, there simply are not very many places that reflect the illogic and joy of how a young person views the world. Consider the necessary order and sameness of most classrooms. And the high pressure teenagers feel to conform to certain standards on social media. Shouldn't some places exist that honor kids' inherent peculiarity? Their honest impulses and optimism? Walk into the Detroit Robot Factory, operated by 826michigan, or Grimm & Co in Rotherham, England, and you'll know they do.

All over the world, there are courageous local leaders who believe that school-aged students in their city deserve an extraordinary place all their own. This movement started with 826 Valencia in San Francisco, whose acclaimed youth writing and tutoring program now includes three stunning locations, each serving a different neighborhood, as well as city-wide programs on-site in public schools.

Eighteen years ago, co-founders Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari named their organization after its address, a way to further the idea that kids seeking academic help can do without the stigma of words like "remedial" and the feeling of being "left behind". Having named it 826 Valencia, relocating was not an option, even when they learned the space was zoned for retail.

Rallying all the power and imagination of the kids they hoped to welcome through their doors, they opened the Bay Area's first pirate supply store, meant to fulfill their lease requirements but also serve the working buccaneer with items like peg legs, mopheads, scurvy-prevention products, eye patches, and even replacement glass eyeballs for well-heeled pirates.

Almost two decades later, the idea of an offbeat storefront not-so-slyly concealing a youth writing and tutoring program is a global movement. Dozens of cities have built and are building these palaces for children to learn and grow and write and be themselves. Whether the focus is time travel (Los Angeles) or undersea exploration (Minneapolis), these places declare their purpose in every detail. They say, be yourself. They say, welcome.

School-aged students today face an unusually unwelcoming and terrifying world. Nearly one in three teenagers experience an anxiety disorder, and childhood anxiety is increasing across all demographics. Imagine coming of age in a world where President Trump is the only U.S. leader in your memory. A world where climate disaster predictions are grimmer every day, and mass shootings are increasing in frequency. A nation whose xenophobic immigration policies are actively unwelcoming.

These ludicrously beautiful and welcoming spaces are an essential antidote.

For many years, I was executive director of 826michigan, where we designed our programs and our two robot supply stores with the same spirit of inclusivity and freedom. The tutoring and writing programs are offered at no cost, thanks in part to adult volunteers, and they aim to build students' confidence in themselves, and especially in themselves as writers. In the course of one afternoon, a child who may have struggled through their school day can walk in to be greeted warmly by an adult in a lab coat and goggles inside a robot workshop, meet a tutor who helps them achieve that satisfying feeling of a long division assignment completed correctly and on time, then work with other students on a collaborative story about a dinosaur rock band, a truck made of candy, or whatever else is on their young minds that afternoon. We've learned that when adults teach themselves to hang back and follow the visionary leadership of unfettered kid brains, anything is possible.

You could say this is frivolous. Why invest in beauty when the world is in peril in so many ways? My experience is that the investment itself is one of the most important parts of the outcome. Local organizations invite artists to help translate their strangest ideas to reality in a storefront. Caring adults of all backgrounds are invited to serve as volunteers, gaining new perspectives themselves as they're giving back. Business leaders and educators and others join forces to launch these organizations then work together to keep them afloat as vibrant community touchstones, places where anyone can go for a rare moment of gobsmacking wonder. People look up from their phones for a minute to talk about the most curious thing—that new shop on the corner which really is a tutoring center for kids. Spurring communities to work together and to authentically connect like this is good for everyone, not just the kids who will inherit our future.

Most adults will tell you that they, too, have anxiety about the future. It's impossible to permanently shut out the chaos and uncertainty of all that's happening in 2020. It is possible, though, to walk into the shop run by Louisville, Kentucky's Young Authors Greenhouse, pick up some anti-gravity powder and hop in a hot-air balloon basket on your way to the back room, where tutors and students have put aside today's worries, at least for an afternoon.

Amanda Uhle is Executive Director and Publisher of McSweeney's, known for its award-winning quarterly literary journal, humor website and eclectic book publishing program, and publisher of Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire. She is co-founder, with Dave Eggers, of The International Congress of Youth Voices. She remains involved with numerous youth writing organizations in Michigan and around the world.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​