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

As Bostonians prepare to elect a new mayor, we would like to take a minute to examine civic engagement from a preschooler’s point of view. Young children are citizens and their decisions can have a big impact on a community, even if they can’t vote.

Tonight, the rights and needs of children will be discussed at a Boston Children’s Museum forum on early childhood education that will feature the two mayoral candidates.

Children’s rights as citizens have also received long-standing attention from Ben Mardell, a Lesley University professor of early education. As we recently wrote, Mardell is on a mission to help children participate in the public debate.

Adult voices fill town halls and public debates, but Mardell asks how children can participate in the civic process in meaningful ways. One powerful answer, he says, is to ask children for their opinions about issues that matter to them. The next step is to share children’s ideas and input with community leaders.

That’s the thinking behind a project Mardell worked on: a book called “Places to Play in Providence: A Guide to the City by Our Youngest Citizens.” Written by a group of the city’s three- and four-year-olds, the book features pictures and observations about playgrounds and other play areas.

The book was written for participants in NAEYC’s 20th National Institute for Early Childhood Professional Development, which was held two years ago in Providence.

“In anticipation of your visit, we enlisted a network of early childhood educators from community-based centers and home-based programs to ask their students to be the civic ambassadors of our city,” Providence Mayor Angel Taveras wrote in the Places to Play’s introduction. “Children were asked to create a page about the best places to play in Providence. In the book I invite you to see the vitality, beauty and uniqueness or Providence through the eyes of our youngest citizens.”

In the book, four-year-old Eddie drew a picture of India Point Park and offered this comment: “We always go there together. I like to go on the swings and climbing ropes. There is a soccer field.”

And Four-year old Adelaide drew the ramps at the Children’s Museum, adding, “There is a little secret house and a bunny we can play on.”

Readers of the guide learn that Providence is a friendly, multilingual city where children play and use their imaginations in parks, malls, restaurants, and at cultural events and organizations.

To produce the book, children discussed the project with teachers and with each other. They created picture and text and gave each other feedback on their work.

“The project was not ordinary curriculum for the teachers,” according to a 2012 article in the NAEYC publication Young Children written by Mardell and Bethany Carpenter, of Ready to Learn Providence, a nonprofit organization working to close its city’s educational achievement gap. “The practice of young children giving and receiving feedback was new,” the article continues, pointing out that “learning from and with members of one’s community,” is a key part of democratic citizenship.

Places to Play has also enhanced children’s roles in their own communities. As the NAEYC article explains, teachers treated children “as citizens – not as hypothetical or future citizens, but as contemporary members of their community. They see children as capable of constructing and communicating complex ideas, adding their unique and valuable perspectives.”

As one teacher, Victoria Bothelho, explains, “I was surprised by the children’s ability to listen to feedback from other children and to make decisions about whether they would ‘take it or leave it.’ It changed my way of thinking about children’s abilities.”

“More than a year after the book’s debut, the mayor still keeps copies in his office and hands them out to Providence, Rhode Island visitors,” the NAEYC article explains.

Ready to Learn sponsored Places to Play along with Making Learning Visible, a project of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and the R2LP/Making Learning Visible Peer Network, a collaboration of early education professionals. Funding came in part from BrightStars, the state’s quality rating and improvement system, which is managed by the Rhode Island Association for the Education of Young Children.

In addition, the project built a bridge that connected the early education community to civic leaders. And perhaps most importantly, the project respected and amplified the importance of children as citizens.

The next step is to create more opportunities for our youngest children to participate in public discussions. This requires hard work, but helping children act as full-fledged citizens is an education for them, their teachers, and their communities.