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“Dear Boston Public School Kindergarteners,” began a letter that children received in February.

“My name is Marty Walsh and I am the Mayor of Boston. You live in Boston and are some of the youngest and most important residents. As Bostonians, you have the right to share your opinions about our city.

“I hear you are learning about structures as part of the construction unit. I have a question for you: What suggestions do you have about construction in our city to make Boston a fairer and more interesting place for children?

Acknowledging that this is a big question, Walsh encourages the students to do research; to talk to each other, their teachers, and their families.

“Write your ideas and please make a model to help me understand your ideas better.”

As a City of Boston press release explains, “In early April a committee made up of members of the BPS Arts and Early Childhood Departments selected 18 of the ‘Our Boston’ models to be displayed at City Hall as part of the annual BPS arts show. The children’s ideas included: indoor playgrounds, so children can have place to run around during the winter; more houses, so no one will go homeless,” an amusement park, and other creative ideas. 

The models were on display from April 23rd to May 1st. And several classes visited the exhibit and met with the mayor, members of his staff, and with Amy Ryan, the president of the Boston Public Library. This is the second annual “Our Boston” project.

Mayor Marty Walsh at the
Mayor Marty Walsh at the “Our Boston” exhibit. Photo courtesy of Ben Mardell

Jessica Ellis, a teacher at the William W. Henderson Inclusion School in Dorchester, came to City Hall with her students, who had lots of questions for Turahn Dorsey, the mayor’s chief of education. Can you make more schools? Why do schools get torn down? And: What’s your favorite food?

For the exhibit, this class made several models, among them a money door. An accompanying sign explains, “Whoever needs money can just go to the door and money will fall down. To get in you put your hand on the scanner and the door will know if you need money or not, whether you get a lot or a little. It is more fair and interesting for children because some people don’t have money to get what they need.”

Coincidentally, Ken Field and his Revolutionary Snake Ensemble Quartet with guest Stan Strickland were performing at City Hall as part of JazzBoston’s preview of International Jazz Day. So once the children were done with their presentations, they cut a mean rug as jazz dancers.

What’s the best part of the project for Florence Yee’s class?

“Understanding how big our ideas are,” Yee said, when she and her class visited City Hall, and that, “our big ideas are heard by big people.”

Yee and her students from the Eliot K-8 Innovation School in the North End built an indoor playground in case, as the exhibit sign said, “it is too cold, rainy, or snowy, we can come here to learn and play. There are houses surrounding the indoor playground that has a language museum, a water park section, a food bar, a petting zoo, and a 0 dollar pet store. We even have a goop studio for kids to play with goop, make it, and take it home.”

Among the official reactions to the project:

“I love that as 5-year-olds there’s a deep sense of social justice,” Dorsey, the education chief, said as he walked through the exhibit last week. “This is what high quality education looks like,” he added, praising the way that “Our Boston” integrates learning by combining math, design, art, science, and, of course, public speaking.

And Susan Nguyen, program director of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, told Yee and her students, that Nguyen’s job is to “help the mayor make these things come true.” For example, the mayor could ask Nguyen how the city could have a real language museum. Then Nguyen and her team would do the research: looking for models in other cities, possible partners, and ways to run a pilot program. The goal is to prove the value of an idea on a small scale, before growing it.

At the root of “Our Boston” is a curriculum guide developed by Ben Mardell and his colleagues. Mardell is a professor of Early Childhood Education at Lesley University. And as we’ve blogged before, he promotes the civic rights and activities of young children.

Mayor Walsh sums up the importance of “Our Boston” in the city’s press release, saying, “Our youngest citizens have some of the biggest ideas, and the ‘Our Boston’ project is an exciting way to engage them with government early on. When invited to contribute their thoughts, children will awe and inspire all of us with their creativity, vision and amazing sense of belief that anything is possible.”

Slide show photos: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children