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Civics for the Youngest Citizens

Fostering a relationship between children and their communities
Civics for the Youngest Citizens

The civic curriculum for young children usually doesn’t expand beyond “do not talk to strangers,” writes Harvard professor Danielle Allen in her book Talking to Strangers.

Ben Mardell, a principal investigator at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero (which also includes Allen), has long been interested in questioning that status quo. He quoted that line from Allen’s book during a recent presentation on the civic roles of children, hosted by the Ed School’s Civic and Moral Education Initiative.

We teach children to engage with larger society by telling them not to engage, Mardell said — and then we all lose out. Children don’t wait for adulthood, or even to learn to read, before becoming citizens; they already are. And the classroom can be the perfect place to hone citizenship skills, building a sense of community not only among classmates, but with the broader world.

Project Zero (PZ) researchers, including senior researcher Mara Krechevsky, explored this when they posed a question to children in Washington, D.C.: To whom does your city belong? The question was part of a broader initiative called Children Are Citizens, which involved several citywide institutions, including the National Gallery of Art. In part inspired by the preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy — known as laboratories of hands-on learning — the Children are Citizens initiative asked young students to engage with their surroundings and share what they learned.

After pondering whom D.C. belongs to (“To anyone who takes care of it really good,” said one 4-year old; “It’s like a house that you share with your family,” said a 5-year-old), more than 300 students, spread across preschool and first grade at five D.C. schools, furthered their exploration of the question through projects. There was no set curriculum that prescribed what the projects would look like or accomplish. Instead, that was directed by the students, some as young as three.

Catalina Stirling, a teacher at the DC Bilingual Public Charter School, became involved in the initiative during a D.C. summer workshop about Project Zero ideas, led by Jim Reese, At first she wasn’t sure what her class of 3-year-olds would do. But one day, on a walk, they found a Little Free Library — a small, public book exchange that looked like a house. They were obsessed, asking Stirling again and again if they could return to it on their walks.

Over the next few months, Stirling worked with them to turn the obsession into a story, La Casita de Libros, which they wrote and illustrated together. Then, the teachers at the school worked together to put on a musical version of the children’s story.

Seeing the work of children is transformative for adults, too. It can challenge adults’ assumptions and make them look at issues in new ways or ask different questions.

Finally, touched by their children’s enthusiasm for the Little Free Library, some of the parents of students donated money to the Little Free Library nonprofit organization. The organization wrote back and explained to the children where the money had gone: to a rural community in Alabama and a “not-so-affluent” neighborhood in Chicago. What started out as a classroom project became a way to connect with, learn from, and help the outside world.

At Project Zero, Mardell and Krechevsky have identified how projects like this can be transformative for children — and adults.

Choose topics that connect children and their communities

Stirling followed the students’ interest, seeing what grabbed their attentions and imaginations. It was a bit unnerving to not be able to plan what the project would be, she admitted. “It’s a beautiful way of teaching, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, and every class is different,” Stirling said. “But yes, it’s extremely hard to have 3-year-olds guide you.”

Other possibilities for inspiration include looking at the needs of the community; in an article on the initiative, the PZ researchers describe the process that led to a 178-page book for children, written and illustrated by Stirling’s class and 15 other classrooms throughout D.C. (The book, called, Washington DC: “What People Like Most Is in this Book,” can be downloaded as a PDF.) The book shares the results of the children’s research into their city and can provide ideas for future projects. Children can also weigh in on the same questions and topics that are occupying adults, like what it means to be presidential, or the Movement for Black Lives.

Make learning and learners visible

A product like a book allows children to see their own learning and share their findings with everyone from their parents to the communities and policymakers who influence their lives on a larger scale. The children’s book about D.C. was launched at a public gathering at the National Gallery of Art’s East Wing. Such experiences empower children to contribute. “Later on, maybe it’s your idea that will make a huge difference,” Stirling said, “but if you’re not comfortable sharing your ideas, that’s not going to happen.”

Seeing the work of children is transformative for adults, too. It can challenge adults’ assumptions and make them look at issues in new ways or ask different questions. “Young children can influence the way adults see the world,” Mardell said.

Democracy in action

By collaborating on a creative project, like the story of the Free Little Library, students learn to listen to each other and work together to develop their ideas. They share what they already know, and together, create new knowledge. It’s the work of democracy: considering other people’s perspectives and working together toward solutions.

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