A few months ago, I wrote a blog about museums and democracy and I have, of late, been reminded that I am not the only one thinking about young children, civics, and advocacy. I was taking time to go through my predecessor’s files and was reminded that SEEC collaborated with Project Zero on a project entitled Children Are Citizens, a collaboration of children and teachers participating in a professional development and curriculum project that sees young children as not just future citizens, but current citizens. The goal of the project is to connect children to their DC community in an active and meaningful way. There is even an upcoming conference on this very topic next weekend at the Washington International School. SEEC’s participation in 2014 -2015 highlighted the students’ perspectives on the museums on the National Mall – offering insight into the collections and commenting on the importance of museums and what other children should see when they visit.
My team and I also recently spent two days at the Capitol conducting a training for their visitor services staff and I was lucky enough to engage in a conversation with their educators about civics and young children. Like us, they felt that civics has a definitive place in early childhood education.
With all these elements converging, I wanted to take time to reflect back on SEEC’s students and their role as young citizens. In my previous blog, I made the case for how SEEC’s approach to learning naturally promotes civic and community engagement. With this blog, I wanted to examine how specific lessons help young children become active members of their community.
One of my favorite SEEC stories comes from the Kindergarten class a few years ago when they learned about biblioburro or the donkey library, a mobile library in Columbia. After learning about this library and taking some time to formulate questions for it’s founder, Luis Soriano, the kindergartners wanted to do something to support it. They ultimately decided on hosting a bake sale, which they successfully planned and implemented as a group. They earned $500, which they excitedly counted and then tracked as their teacher transferred the money. The biblioburro also inspired them to make an alphabet book of ocean animals in Spanish. The book was not only donated to the biblioburro, but was also sold as a fundraiser for SEEC.
Young children are naturally egocentric and empathy is a skill that they are still developing. So when one of our classes was having difficulty with conflict resolution, the educators thought it was time to focus on developing these skills. The class embarked on a longer study of heroes and heroism, a part of which included going to Martha’s Table where they not only donated food, but actually gave part of their own lunches to make sandwiches. Here is a small portion from that blog:
The following week we told the kids that there was a special place in DC called Martha’s Table where you could take food for people who can’t afford to buy their own. “We have lots of food in our kitchen at my house,” one girl said. “I’ll bring some to school and we can send it to the Martha’s Table.” It was a sweet offer, but it didn’t require any heroic action on the part of our students and it didn’t teach them anything other than how to ask their parents for food- which was always available to them. So we told them to go ahead and bring some food from home to flesh out our donation and then we put our grand plan to a class vote. We told them that what we really wanted to do was to make sandwiches to take to Martha’s Table and that we wanted to use the sliced bread that was going to be delivered as a side dish for the children’s lunch the next day. The vote was unanimous. We used all of the bread that was delivered the next morning, made 30 sandwiches, loaded them in a wagon along with 50 additional pounds of food and took them on the metro to hand-deliver them to Martha’s Table. The kids were so proud of their work and I was so proud of their choice to take food that was meant for them and give it to someone who needed it more.
These are just a small sampling of experiences in which children at SEEC have participated as agents of change. There have been other experiences, especially among our pre-K and K students, but its important to remember our younger students too.
Children zero to three are still trying to understand their place in the world, the concept of sharing, and being helpful. This developmental stage is a powerful time to introduce students to the concept of community and empathy. One of our toddler classes did just this via a lesson about setting the table. This lesson was part of a larger unit in which they explored family, love, and community all around the winter holiday season. What I found most powerful about this lesson was the educators observations about how the children continued to help with setting the table well after the lesson. The children truly began to see how they were not only part of a bigger group, but able to give and receive help in a way that benefited the greater good.
In another toddler class, they participated in a unit on superheroes. Children easily identify with the image of the superhero and our faculty saw the opportunity to extend that interest into a study about real life heroes. They explored community helpers like firefighters, military personnel, police officers and even talked about the Red Cross. The students began to see how some members of the community can make a real difference in helping and protecting people. Not only did this unit of exploration give them time to think about those roles, but it also gave them the opportunity to make real connections with the people and places that are dedicated to community service.
Over and over, I am reminded of how fundamental the early years are to learning these life skills. The academic portion will come, but we have a real opportunity to shape active, engaged, and empathetic citizens.