Raising Politically Engaged Children

The roots of civic engagement begin in early childhood, yet in any election, the youngest voters (ages 18 to 29) are the least likely age group to vote. What can parents and educators do to encourage children to engage with social issues, reflect on values, and ultimately become active members of our democracy?

In a recent interview, Rachel Gillman Rischall, the founder of Kids for Justice, commented, "As a parent, you have the opportunity to shape your family culture around politics. Are you going to have a negative outlook? Is someone always the bad guy? Is it a finger pointing culture? Or you could flip it and say, 'We have a culture of curiosity, empowerment, and engagement. We are going to learn, discuss, and go on field trips.' By creating a space for kids to positively engage with politics, you're laying the groundwork for future activism."

'We have a culture of curiosity, empowerment, and engagement. We are going to learn, discuss, and go on field trips.'

When parents model what it means to be an active participant in a community, children learn that they can contribute in meaningful ways for the benefit of others. For example, when each family member has to do chores, it demonstrates to children how a community can work together to complete tasks that need to be done to keep a household running smoothly.

 

Taking a democratic approach to family decisions, however small, is a means of introducing concepts like "majority" and "voting" from a young age. Becoming familiar with these concepts helps children navigate social interactions at school. 

Research has shown that the conversations that parents and educators have with children about politics matter for children's long term civic engagement. It's important to note that introducing children to politics isn't about teaching children to parrot their parents' views. Engaging with politics is a learning opportunity for children to reflect on their family's values and learn how to represent those values. As they come to understand their own values, they will be prepared to become active participants capable of thinking critically about social and political issues. 

Civic Engagement & Play

Most of the research on the development of civic engagement is focused on teens with the aim of understanding how to get young people to vote. How can we start earlier? Recognizing this opportunity, scholars have called on the research community to pay more attention to the roots of civic engagement in early childhood. How can parents and teachers raise children who are interested and engaged members of their communities?

 

Parents and educators can provide children with opportunities to build social-emotional and cognitive skills that will serve as a foundation for their role as citizens. These skills are best developed through quality play.

 

One of our colleagues at New York University, Dr. Jennifer Astuto, who specializes in researching children's civic engagement wrote, “By quality play we mean play that is complex, where children are encouraged to explore their interests in ways that promote language, creativity, and problem solving. We argue that quality play experiences in early childhood settings promote and nurture the necessary skills for later engagement.”

 

In other words, through “quality” play, children develop the requisite skills to become active participants in society. 

If high quality play is fundamental for children's civic engagement, 

then how can parents and educators improve the "quality" of children's play?

Weave planning into play

Help them make a play plan in the morning before starting to play. Having a plan encourages children to increase the complexity of their play and spend more time on play scenarios.

Encourage flexibility

Encourage children to be flexible by combining toys that don't "go together". Flexibility is a cognitive skill that underlies children's ability to consider potential solutions to problems.

Model problem-solving skills

As you think through problems throughout the day, narrate your thought process. This models for children how to consider alternative solutions while exposing them to rich, complex language.

Resources

Rachel Gillman Rischall of Kids for Justice compiled the resources below. Kids for Justice is an exciting new national campaign to ensure that children's voices are heard and that politicians represent the best interests of the next generation. 

Interested in learning more about Kids for Justice? You can watch our interview with Rachel on Instagram.

Postcards to Voters

Postcards to Voters has delivered over 8 million friendly, handwritten notes to voters reminding them to vote. They have more than 75,000 volunteers across all 50 states.

 

The Honeycomb Project

The Honeycomb Project is a Chicago-based nonprofit that connects families with volunteer opportunities. Children can get to know their city by learning about the social issues facing their communities. Their new initiative in response to the pandemic, Honeycomb at Home, provides children with opportunities to be virtual volunteers.

Volunteer Opportunities

"Who Was? " Series of Illustrated Biographies

"Bad Kitty for President" by Nick Bruel

"Grace for President" by Kelly S. DiPucchio, illustrations by LeUyen Pham

"Vote" by Eileen Christelow

"A More Perfect Union: The Story of Our Constitution" by Betsy and Giulio Maestro

"The Fourth of July Story" by Alice Dalgiesh 

Children's Books

Research on civic engagement in early childhood:

Astuto, J., & Ruck, M. D. (2010). Early childhood as a foundation for civic engagement. In L. R. Sherrod, J. Torney-Purta, & C. A. Flanagan (Eds.), Handbook of research on civic engagement in youth (p. 249–275). John Wiley & Sons, Inc..

Astuto, J. & Ruck, M. (2017) Growing up in poverty and civic engagement: The role of kindergarten executive function and play predicting participation in 8th grade extracurricular activities, Applied Developmental Science, 21:4, 301-318.

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