Giving children a vote on anything from lunch menus to nappy changing can actually work very well in early childhood programmes.
An experiment to test how far decision-making processes can be devolved to the under-sixes at a centre has resulted 3 ½ years later in the formation of an early childhood centre democracy.
The Dolli Einstein Haus centre in Germany has a charter listing seven basic rights:
- I have the right to sleep;
- I decide what and how much I eat;
- I decide what I play with;
- I decide where I sit;
- I am allowed to voice my opinion any time;
- I decide who I want to cuddle with; and
- I decide who changes my nappies.
The centre’s director says her mission lies less in empowering children than equipping them with the skills to cope with a rapidly changing modern world:
“Democracy is not just about elections. For us it is about people – or children – being taken seriously, and learning to make decisions in a way that doesn’t leave other people behind,” she said.
The compromises can be a bit challenging for the teachers but they recognise the educational value of giving children choice and nurturing children’s decision-making capacity.
Most children attend the centre from age 1 to 6 years, and stay there from 8am until 4pm on weekdays.
Once a week, each group of children at the centre meets for a session at which there are two rounds of votes: one on the topping of the afternoon cake, and one on the Friday morning breakfast menu. The former is essentially a referendum, with the teachers for example offering a choice between lemon and chocolate cake, while for the latter the children can nominate four meal options.
The options are drawn on pieces of paper which are placed in the middle of a circle of children, each of whom sits down on a cushion after listening to the sound of a quiet gong, facing outwards to allow an anonymous vote. When their names are called, the children take turns placing coloured pebbles, known as Muckelsteine, underneath their preferred option.
The centre cook has to act out the will of the voters even if it seems disgusting or unhealthy – a principle which has tested the resolve of parents and educators alike. In the past, the centre has served up pizza and stewed beef with beetroot for breakfast.
“Our experience is that children will eventually eat spinach, salad or rye bread if you keep on offering it and they see other children eat it”, said the centre’s director.
Bigger decisions, such as investment in new toys or rule changes in the playground, are made at a monthly children’s council attended by pairs of boys and girls nominated as “passers on”. At one recent such meeting, delegates took their leaders to task after the centre director made the unilateral decision to buy a pair of new tricycles.
“It was such a good offer and we knew the kids liked tricycles, so I had just gone for it,” she said. “But the children told us in no uncertain terms that we had not been authorised to make that decision. That was one of those moments where we felt: yes, we are on the right path.
See the full article by Philip Oltermann in the Guardian