Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children
Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children

“Four year olds are citizens, not potential citizens, not citizens in training, but citizens, with rights and obligations like all citizens,” Ben Mardell and his co-authors write in a 2010 paper called, – “The Rights of Children: Policies to Best Serve Three, Four and Five Year Olds in Public Schools.”

“Children must be recognized not just as growing unfinished beings,” the report says, “but also as true thinkers and doers, as active participants in their education”.

“We have to see children as more than cute,” Mardell, a professor of early childhood education at Lesley University, explained in a recent interview. They are cute, he quickly adds, but more importantly, they are citizens of their classrooms, their schools, and of the larger community.

As citizens, children have rights – not only to health care, food and protection from abuse, but also the right to participate in decisions that affect them. They can’t vote or serve or juries, Mardell notes, but ask children about parks or classroom rules, and they have interesting things to say.

“Kids are researchers with hypotheses,” Mardell says. They have powerful thoughts and ideas that they are constantly testing. “I see them as part of the research team.”

In their 2010 paper, Mardell and his coauthors focus on “three rights young children have in classroom settings, rights that support their pursuit of happiness and the development of their long-term potential.” These are:

1. The right to be recognized and listened to:

“To know and support a child as a learner, teachers must pay very careful attention: to the choices she makes, to the language she uses, to her interactions, and to the themes she revisits. Children must be recognized not just as growing, unfinished beings, but also as true thinkers and doers, as active participants in their education.

2. The right to learn through play:

“Play is more than fun (which is a good in and of itself); play is how children learn. Play helps the young brain develop.”

3. The right to meaningful, purposeful and reasonable evaluation:

“A yearly trip to the doctor should be on every four-year-old’s calendar. However, for a healthy child, weekly exams would be intrusive and even abusive. The same is true for educational evaluation; some is reasonable while too much violates children’s rights.”

By actively respecting these rights and reflecting them in daily practice, educators can create dynamic and engaging early childhood environments.

Turning Children’s Rights into Educational Action

Mardell spoke at this year’s Kindergarten Conference for Boston teachers, sharing his ideas on children as citizens. He says he shared a story about being a teacher in a three-year-old room in 1983, and how impressed he was by the children.

“These kids are bigger than I thought,” he said he remembered thinking. But then he saw a child from the classroom in the street and “she seemed so small” because she wasn’t in a child-supported space.

“A cool preschool classroom really does make kids big,” Mardell explained. These spaces help boost children’s confidence and encourage them to share their ideas.

What makes a classroom cool? One feature is an engaging curriculum.

So Mardell also spoke to the teachers about the new kindergarten curriculum – Focus on K2 – that he has been working on for the Boston Public Schools’ Department of Early Childhood.

The curriculum is evidence-based, and, as the Focus on K2 introduction explains, it is loaded with engaging activities, because “kindergarten children should love coming to school, feel confident about themselves, and become deeply engaged in their learning. Curiosity, creativity and a sense of wonder should be encouraged and fostered, and children should have many opportunities to experience success through their efforts.”

Focus on K2 combines play, hands-on activities, projects, and rich topics, as well as individual, small-group and whole-group work. Children get to think creatively, talk, collaborate, and practice new skills. They learn about mathematical concepts, science and the arts, and they participate in writing and storytelling workshops.

Focus on K2 has four thematic units that interweave these engaging learning activities with intriguing content :

1. Our community

“This is a time for establishing a supportive community of learners, building relationships, fostering peer collaboration, and becoming confident with the routines and expectations of kindergarten.” Children learn about communities and their own citizenship – in the classroom and in the larger world.

2. Animals and Habitats

This unit focuses on “caring for living things and learning about animals through hands-on investigation and research. Students will engage in author/illustrator/artist studies, collaborative projects, and will explore concepts of care and safety, responsibility, courage, and respect.”

3. Construction

This unit “invites children to make physical science connections through construction of structures, measurement and comparison, and experimentation with materials.” They’ll also learn about “fairness; considering multiple perspectives; analyzing uses for various materials and tools; and the purposes of construction including constructing buildings, songs, dances, plays, stories, and understanding the role of culture and history in these constructions.”

4. Our Earth

This unit “explores the natural world through investigations and research of earth’s properties,” Children will learn about the earth’s surface, gardening, recycling, reuse and care for the environment, as well as about healthy lifestyles, honesty and courage.

The Power of Storytelling

A key strategy at the heart of Mardell’s work — and at the heart of Boston’s K2 curriculum — is storytelling and acting out stories. These activities promote children’s language, literacy, and learning skills.

Mardell has used storytelling/story acting in classrooms and at the Boston Children’s Museum, enlisting children to tell and act out stories that are rich in personal meaning, education value and sheer joy.

As these videos show, adults guide children in storytelling/story acting, asking questions that prompt children to supply characters, plots, ideas, and delightful turns as actors. Students can make up their own stories, as a little girl named Gabriella does here. In many of these stories, as one girl reports in a video featured on BPS’s Department of Early Education website, there are witches.

Mardell bases his storytelling/story acting work on the ideas of Vivian Paley, a preschool educator who won a MacArthur Foundation genius award.

Paley says that children’s imaginative play is an important survival skill. Children “must practice pretending to be someone else in another place; making up character, plot and dialogue for the stories they invent,” she explains in a video posted by New York’s 92nd Street Y. “They are in truth, inventing abstract thinking: the act of stepping outside oneself and viewing a broader perspective of relationships… but they are also, it seems to me, inventing reading, writing and arithmetic…”

Paley continues: “They are inventing and reinventing themselves as thinking people, before the world tells them what to think… In effect, the child says: ‘I am someone with ideas; I am someone who turns ideas into actions, and actions into new ideas. And furthermore, this is what I’m intended to do… to show myself what my ideas are and how necessary I am to the community.’”

Revealing how “necessary” children are is one of the most powerful things that early education can do.

On the Horizon

What’s next for Mardell? Finding more opportunities for children to engage in community life as part of their school experience. Children should also have the opportunity to share what they’ve learned with the larger community.

These types of opportunities should be available for more children in Boston and across the country. A powerful and engaging early education can help protect and promote our youngest citizen’s rights.