One morning this past April, 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, who 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.
But the goal of the activity wasn't just to have cute kids make art and share happy thoughts.
"We are not doing this work to be nice," said Ben Mardell, an education researcher who collaborates with Harvard's Project Zero, which brings together scholars to study how people learn. 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."
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.
Mardell and his collaborators at Project Zero believe that children as young as 3 have ideas about how to make a city more fair, safe, and livable. D.C. was the third test ground for "Children Are Citizens," which calls on early-childhood educators like myself to tap into their students' knowledge about their neighborhoods, get the children to brainstorm ways to make their communities better, and facilitate the sharing of their ideas with the general public and policymakers. Teachers at a handful of public and private D.C. schools, including two serving high percentages of low-income children, participated in the program this year (my school did not participate). Another batch of high-poverty schools are slated to participate next year, too.