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Raising little citizens: Civics lessons for K-5 kids

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My middle and elementary school daughters remind me every chance they get when I’m breaking a house rule or if I’m handing out a punishment that’s “unfair.” They spend a lot of time thinking about right and wrong and have a strong understanding that in our home (and at school) the rules are in place to keep everyone safe and to keep things equitable. That’s basic civics -- understanding how the rules of our society work and taking responsibility to participate as a positive and effective community member.

Civic education is a gradual progression. Elementary school civics is more about teaching civility and citizen responsibility than teaching the intricacies of our political system. The middle and high school years are reserved for teaching government structure and the ways that its citizens can take action to form the society they want to live in. For older kids, civics centers around their individuality, shifting the focus to learning how the system works to fulfill an individual’s needs or how they can improve their place in that society.

My years spent teaching and parenting have shown me that younger kids are particularly interested in civic concepts such as fairness, equity, trust, and teamwork because elementary-aged kids aren’t provided as much freedom to change the rules as older kids and adults.

At home, parents can influence civic-mindedness by consciously encouraging habits and skills that allow kids to flourish as contributing members of their community. Much of teaching civic skills to younger children involves social-emotional development within a global or communal context. Schools serve as one of the best places to introduce civic-mindedness through lessons, assemblies, and celebrations. Parents can reinforce the school experience and take that excitement one step further by engaging in activities at home that will translate into lifelong habits and responsibilities. Here are some simple practices and activities for families to use at home:

  1. Model civility online. Treat others with respect, even under stressful situations such as driving or tense face-to-face interactions.

  2. Further model respect for others and their values and ideas by actively listening and considering the opinions of others.

  3. Talk with your kids about social responsibility and the effects our actions have on others.

  4. Make civics fun with activities such as playing iCivics games, and learn together how government works in an engaging way.

  5. Encourage global citizenship and teamwork by signing your kids up for sports, community groups, or scouts.

  6. Register to vote. Talk about the act of voting. Take your kids with you to the polls.

  7. Participate in the local government around you. Join your PTA/PTO. Attend neighborhood council or town hall meetings. And let your kids know why you’re doing it.

  8. Take your kids to visit city hall or your state capitol building.

  9. Take your kids with you when you volunteer in your community or favorite nonprofit.

  10. Recycle and read up on your carbon footprint. Explain why this is important to your kids.

  11. Find your neighborhood, city, state, and country on Google Maps and discuss geographic topography.

  12. Write a letter to the grandparents or other relatives and take a trip to the post office to mail the letter so they can see civic works in action.

  13. Discuss the effect that media, advertising, and political ads have on our daily decisions.

  14. Read biographical picture and chapter books on historical figures.

  15. Use kid-friendly news and current events sites like Scholastic News, Time for Kids, and Newsela to discuss responsible journalism.

Most importantly, hold family discussions. Kids are listening to how parents feel about candidates, referendums, their neighbors, and what’s happening with your PTA. You might as well bring them in on age-appropriate discussions. Ask your child questions that challenge them to create solutions for community problems like pollution, hunger, and how we treat people who are different. If you’re curious about what questions you should ask or if you need more insight into how to hold meaningful family discussions, my daughters and I model this on the Let’s K12 Better podcast.

The home should serve as a child’s first civic laboratory. If kids are going to learn civics effectively, the teaching has to be reinforced at home and at a young age. Chores, interactions with siblings, disciplinary action, and family values and traditions are all great opportunities to engage young kids in civility and civic-mindedness. The main goal for parents wanting to raise little citizens is to model behaviors that teach kids that they belong, are wanted members of society, and have a shared responsibility in creating the world that they want to live in.

BTW… It’s election time! Kids can engage in election centered activities, even if they can’t vote. Election season is a great opportunity to engage kids in civics to jumpstart their long-term commitment to an active civic life. Visit iCivics Election Headquarters to find election resources for homes and classrooms.

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