Early childhood classrooms are a surprising yet ideal site for introducing meaningful civic engagement. Schools, particularly preschools, are often the first institutions where children must work alongside others, beyond the members of their families and their immediate circles. With the somewhat shocking change that entering a school environment brings, there is also the opportunity to introduce and practice good civic skills. Think about it, at the blocks center, children begin to develop their negotiating and compromising skills for a limited set of resources. At dramatic play, children navigate competing interests, advocate for themselves and their ideas, and navigate big emotions as they are experienced when they don’t get their way. Do these skills sound like they should be applicable outside the classroom? I hope they do, because they are the foundational skills for engaging in civil discourse and participating in the democratic process. This is more than just voting on what to name the classroom pet fish—democracy, in its purest and most beautiful form, is woven deep within the seemingly mundane play interactions children engage in and teacher-supported instruction. Too often, we observe children developing these skills without giving the experience the acknowledgment it deserves: lived experiences that cultivate civic capabilities and a developmentally appropriate understanding of equity. These skills, and the acknowledgment of these skills, are more critical now than ever.
Democracy is currently in a fragile state. We are reminded of this fragility daily as the media covers candidates and news for the midterm elections, which are looming on our calendar for next Tuesday, November 8th. The uncertainty of what the future holds is enough to unsettle even the most optimistic individual, myself included. Surely, I did my part in voting when it was time and voted for the individuals and initiatives that shared my values and beliefs of what was best for my community. However, after reading a series entitled “Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy Anymore” published by The Atlantic, I realized there was much more that I and anyone else in a classroom could do. In this series, author Yoni Applebaum urges readers to consider the shared accountability we all might have in democracy’s decline. He makes a case that democracy, or in this case, the lack thereof, is a shared responsibility between elected officials and citizens. Unfortunately, citizens have failed to practice democracy consistently and regularly- resulting in dwindling public faith in the country’s system of government. He writes, “Americans have fallen out of practice, or even failed to acquire the habit of democracy in the first place.” Although the November 2020 U.S. election had record-breaking voter turnout, democracy is more than just voting. Voting is a powerful tool for democracy, but it simply is not enough to ensure a more just future for the United States. More intentional “habits of democracy” must be developed and strengthened for future generations. But how might we build and maintain these habits of democracy.
In the National Council for the Social Studies Position Statement on social studies in early childhood states, authors Kimberley Villoti and Ilene Berson state, “Early childhood is a time when the foundations of social studies are established, and … should explicitly attend to engaging and developing young children’s capacity for citizenship, democratic or civic activity.” Further, the position statement suggests that teachers should include diversity, social justice, and anti-bias education as part of their intentional civic learning, school culture, and classroom libraries. This becomes particularly important as the United States and classrooms become increasingly diverse in terms of language, race, ethnicity, class, and national origin. Unfortunately, this recommendation is at odds with new policies coming from conservative states and districts. In my opinion, this is all the more reason to push for opportunities for young children to build capacities for understanding the experience of others and participating in civic activity so we can put an end to these damaging policies.
Democratic thinking and behaviors are not always a natural or innate way of being for children (especially when they are in their egocentric stage of development), so we must consider ways to make them accessible. Are there learning opportunities and experiences to use the naturally existing tension within young children between their self-interest and the good of the community? Children’s literature is a wonderful way to begin to explore this. According to Müge Olğun Baytaş and Stephanie Schroeder, authors of “Cultivating Civic Engagement in the Early Grades with Culturally Appropriate Children’s Literature,” there are three lesson ideas to consider when selecting texts that can support student learning around issues of civic and community engagement. The first lesson to look for when choosing texts is understanding and appreciating the need for diversity in the classroom community” (p.4). When selecting books for the classroom community, look for texts that lend themselves to explore questions such as: ‘what would happen if everyone in the classroom was the same?’, ‘why is it important that everyone has different characteristics in the class?’ and ‘what can we learn from people who are different than us?’. The second lesson is acknowledging the valuable contributions of diverse community members. For this lesson, consider books that explore questions such as: ‘who are the people, places, and things that make up a family?’, ‘who are the people, places, and things that make up a classroom?’, ‘who are the people, places, and things that make up a school?’, and ‘who are the people, places, and things that make up a community?’” The final lesson to consider is recognizing civic action’s value and understanding citizens’ roles. It is important to note that the definition of citizen used in this literature does not reference the legal definition or an unwavering patriotism and conformity. Instead, the term citizen is designed to mean any person who“solves problems, takes responsibility for building communities, and believes in democracy” (Baytaş and Schroeder, 2021).
Early childhood educators can and should foster and reinforce civic engagement and learning for young children. Civic learning can prepare children to recognize and disrupt systems of inequities. While I do not want to discount or discredit the incredible work social studies teachers do each day, there are ways in which every teacher can support the teaching of civics, regardless of the age group or content area they are licensed to teach. Then, we must collectively see each child as a competent citizen, an expert in their own lived experiences, and a holder of opinions and insights worth exploring. Having children experience civic practices such as collective decision-making, in addition to adults shifting their thinking of what children are capable of, might have a dramatic, lasting and necessary impact on the health and future condition of our democracy.
In conclusion, civic education should not be reserved for teens about to vote for the first time; it can and should be taught throughout a child’s school experience. True, young children may not yet be able to engage in the types of justice-oriented civic engagement generally reserved for older youth and adults—such as organizing, protesting, voting, attending a town hall meeting, or deliberating in sophisticated ways about current events—but the key word here is “yet.” With a simple shift in our thinking, we can recognize there is far more to civic engagement than these complex activities mentioned. Preparation for participation can happen as early as preschool. These early experiences help young children grow an awareness of their civic agency and a caring for communities. Developing these democratic dispositions at an early age can support students’ ability to solve problems of injustice throughout their lives—forging a path toward a more equitable and just future for all.