How to Build Your Child’s Civic Skills
October 27 is National Civics Day, which recognizes and celebrates the lifelong importance of civic education. It also commemorates the October 27, 1787, publication of the first Federalist Papers, which were a series of 85 essays by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison urging New Yorkers to ratify the United States Constitution. While the Constitution was ratified in 1788, it continues to evolve through amendments (currently 27). Amendments do not just happen overnight, but rather are the result of years of work by dedicated community members. Civic involvement, which is essential to governmental processes, requires skills that can be learned and practiced, in the classroom or at home.
Although the simple definition of civics is the study of the rights and duties of citizens, children also need to learn how to become active, civically minded community members.
What does civic action look like and how can our youngest community members become engaged in the process?
It is important to provide children of all ages access to a meaningful, interactive and engaging civic education to prepare them for their futures as neighbors, employees, voters or elected officials. This concept drives the mission of the Morven Park Center for Civic Impact (MPCCI) in Leesburg, Virginia.
The MPCCI program allows students to play through hands-on activities and authentic learning experiences, and to learn how to be active and engaged community members who discover their voices matter. We define civic education as not only learning about governmental processes and voting, but building the skills needed to effectively use one’s voice, research issues, take responsibility and make a lasting impact. The MPCCI program consists of 12 lessons that are offered free to K-12 students via in-person or online classes. Each lesson includes games and interactive features that reinforce social studies or science content while building essential civic skills.
To celebrate National Civics Day, MPCCI shares the following key principles and tips to help students learn valuable civic skills and encourage participation in the civic process:
Know Your Voice Matters
All children deserve to know that their voice matters. Even though they are young, they are still members of our communities and should have a say. Children deserve opportunities to learn how they prefer to communicate, to be included in discussions and solution-making processes and to practice compromise.
For our youngest community members, this could look like a walk in the yard, neighborhood or a community park with a discussion focusing on their observations. These new discoveries can then enhance their understanding of the world around them. Middle and high school students can be encouraged to investigate their preferred communication style, which could be traditional writing or public speaking, but could also look like poetry, visual arts or digital media.
Informing themselves and others through open discussions and critical thinking helps children consider other perspectives and reconsider personal biases. Anyone who has ever interacted with a toddler or preschool-age student knows that they love to ask questions, as this is how they learn about the world. Instead of always providing the answer, try responding with, “That is a great question! Let’s investigate it together.”
Encourage older children to research answers from various sources, not just the ones with which they are most familiar or comfortable. This will provide a wider perspective and help them become more extrospective when examining problems or issues.
“Sometimes students just need an invitation to participate,” says one MPCCI participant. Kids want to help solve community issues, but often don’t know how to start, or may get ahead of themselves and skip a few steps in the process. As children begin to voice that they want to participate in their community, ask them to think about what they can do. In the beginning, this might look like a conversation with others that they trust, or creating advocacy posters about a cause important to them. As they gain confidence in their participation, they might take on large roles in advocating and influencing others to participate.
Make an Impact
Remind kids that Greta Thunberg, the famous teenage environmental activist, did not become a household name overnight. She started with just herself, slowly gained support from peers and then used social media to grow her movement within Sweden, across Europe and throughout the world. Let children know that small community actions can also create powerful change and are good places to start. The issues many children worry about are large and need many voices and hands. Even though they are young, they are still members of our communities and can make an impact by focusing on what they can do and developing their leadership style as they become more confident.