Many would consider lessons about citizenship and civics to be a topic for middle and high school students.  The early school years, preschool and pre-K, however, are actually an ideal time to begin the conversation.  Many of the basic elements of living within a society – sharing, fairness, and taking turns – are key concepts for children at this age.

In “The Citizen Preschooler” published in The Atlantic, author Nancy Rothschild contends, “early-childhood classrooms can serve as a natural cradle for democracy, as they’re typically where kids learn their first lessons about group membership”. The author also references programs conducted by Harvard’s Project Zero in a few cities, including Boston, in which young children, when given the opportunity, generated several ideas for improving their communities.

While civics-themed early education programs are uncommon in the U.S., they have taken hold elsewhere.  In particular, the impact of the approach used in Italy’s Reggio Emilia region where children actively participate in driving curriculum has greatly interested Early Education researchers.

Why is Studying Civics Important at This Age?

Enabling young children to ask questions and express opinions about their communities and the world around them is important for several reasons.  First, the process of asking questions and drawing conclusions is part of intellectual development at any age.  Secondly, children are more likely to feel connected and empowered. Engaging young children in civics-related discussions underscores that they are members of their community and that their opinion and contribution to it has value.

Learning the basics in civics also requires children to think with empathy.  Because the focus is on the community as a whole, children begin to think how decisions impact others in the community.  The ability to think beyond your personal experience is a critical skill at any age and a vital part of citizenship.

Civics, Early Education Style

So, given that most of us weren’t exposed to civics before high school, it makes sense to wonder what civics lessons for children this young would look like.  Preschoolers and pre-K kids are able to note practices, people and things that make up their community and think about what these mean to them.

Students in our Brookline pre-K and preschool programs, for instance, learned about the Statue of Liberty and its importance in lessons that included art, music and discussion.  They counted and identified states, noting the nation’s capital.  They learned the names of some presidents, including those from Massachusetts.  They also counted the stars and stripes on the flag, learning the meaning of both.  Our pre-K children, after learning about the U.S. Constitution, created one for their class.

Bringing it Home

Lessons about civics aren’t confined to the classroom.  There are many opportunities to extend the learning at home, especially now with a national election coming up and so much happening in our country and around the world.  For example, the flood of political commercials that come with an election is an opportunity for a great conversation with your child.  – What qualities do they think someone running for President should have?  Why?  What does it mean to be a candidate?  What do they think about what the candidates are saying in the ads?

The election itself is another opportunity.  Whether bringing your children with you to register or vote, allowing them to see what the process looks like and ask why things are done a certain way helps them feel connected and engaged.

Because young children are becoming aware of the world and their place it it, this really is a perfect time to encourage them to engage in it.  The benefit of getting children excited about participating extends far beyond the local community and far beyond their school years.

About the Author:

Gladys Ruiz is the Director of Little Children Schoolhouse in Brookline, MA.  After more than 10 years working in Early Childhood Education, Gladys opened the Little Children Schoolhouse to provide a nurturing, loving environment—an extension of her student’s home and family life—in Brookline. Pre-K, Preschool and Daycare programs for toddlers and infants include extra activities, such as weekly music, yoga, cooking, science activities, and field trips.  Both full day and part-time enrollment are available