Performance space designed by children in Boston. Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children
Performance space designed by children in Boston.
Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children

What does it mean to be a citizen — for preschool children?

They can’t vote. But they are great talkers bursting with ideas. And as citizens their ideas — about playgrounds, transportation, and how to make communities more fair — should be heard and, ideally, seen, since their thinking could change the world.

Because Ben Mardell believes strongly in these principles, his career has been like a megaphone for very young citizens. A professor of early education at Lesley University, Mardell has worked hard to create opportunities for children to participate in civic life.

One recent example that we blogged about is the Our Boston project, which culminated in an exhibit at Boston’s City Hall the featured children’s models of playgrounds, a language museum, a book bus, and a ferry system.

Now an article in the Atlantic written by early educator Amy Rothschild — “The Citizen Preschooler: What should young children learn about being part of a democracy?” —profiles work being done in Washington, D.C., by Mardell and Project Zero, a research group based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“One morning this past April,” the article says, “scores of preschoolers and kindergarteners dragged their grownups into the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The children had created an exhibit demonstrating their perceptions of the nation’s capital and what it means to belong to the city. In one gallery, there was a replica of the D.C. Metro routes, made from neon-colored plastic pipes. In another were cardboard, foam, and popsicle-stick models of the children’s dream playgrounds.

“Over the course of the morning, a signboard asking ‘what does it mean to be a citizen?’ bloomed with more and more bright sticky notes containing answers to that question. Some contributions came from parents and teachers. ‘To participate in decision-making for the country,’ read one. ‘To be free, to explore, to grow through learning,’ offered another, signed with a heart and the name ‘Ms. Rachelle.’ Other contributions came from children: ‘to be a homin’ (i.e., ‘human’), for example. ‘To help another bear in my classroom,’ signed Lucas, a member of the participating ‘Cinnamon Bears’ class.”

It sounds cute, but Mardell offers this caveat: “We are not doing this work to be nice.”

Rather: “The program that brought the kids to the museum, ‘Children Are Citizens,’ is meant to be practical: ‘We actually think we have something to learn from children.’”

“The researchers at Project Zero see public forums, like the event at the National Gallery and the exhibit at Boston’s City Hall, as a way to broadcast children’s work outside of the classroom, and in turn, challenge assumptions about children’s capabilities,” the article says.

Adding her own take, Rothschild, the article’s author, writes:

“In my experience teaching children aged 3 through 6, I’ve found that early-childhood classrooms can serve as a natural cradle for democracy, as they’re typically where kids learn their first lessons about group membership. Young children are often fiercely curious about power and how it works: who makes the rules, and why. Qualitative evidence shows that children have the capacity to debate ideas, and to work together to solve problems that arise in the classroom (how many kids can play in the block area at a time, for example) and outside of it (how to improve a city park). What if young children had more opportunities to offer the general public some civics lessons of their own?”

Rothschild adds: “Civics-focused preschool models have taken hold in other parts of the world. Italy’s Reggio Emilia region has become famous for its universal preschools, whose guiding principle is that children are ‘protagonists’—the main actors and engines in their school work; with the help of their teachers, they drive decision-making about the curriculum.”

“Children typically learn very different civic lessons largely depending on their parents’ income. In some classrooms, students have what sociologists call ‘voice’ (a say in things) and ‘agency’ (capacity to make choices); in others, not so much.”

However, preschool civics is getting some important consideration, according to Rothschild, who writes:

“The lack of attention on the topic means there’s little empirical data to demonstrate the impact of a ‘democratic’ preschool classroom on children’s academic and social outcomes. But that could change. The issue has attracted the attention of the University of Chicago’s Center for the Economics of Human Development, which is directed by James Heckman, a Nobel laureate and economist famous for his analysis of the long-term economic benefits of the Perry Preschool Program. Members of his international research team are currently studying Reggio Emilia’s schools, whose education philosophy, according to the researcher Pietro Biroli, “has inspired schools all over the world, but it has never undergone a formal impact evaluation.” The schools, Biroli says, represent “a unique natural experiment that has been unfolding” over the last half century. The research team is in the process of analyzing its data on the schools’ returns on investment and has not yet released any findings.”

Of course, there’s no need to wait for Heckman’s research results. The Boston Public System has published its preschool curriculum online, including the unit on construction which discusses the Our Boston project.

And the children are ready to go. They have roughly a million ideas about how things could and should be. So it’s up to early educators to devise good ways to share these ideas in classrooms and in communities.