Children as change leaders

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“We want to foster civic attitudes among children.” This sentence probably forms part of most, if not all, Polish school statutes. But have you ever wondered what it means?

At first glance, it seems easy. We need a project by means of which we will be able to take students to the local government facilities or prepare a play about historic events. These are definitely important initiatives, but they do not get to the core of the matter. We have seen on numerous occasions that if the children’s social activity is based on doing what adults tell them to do, the goal we want to achieve will never be reached. Instead, we need to give children the right to decide on their own what their community needs.

Easier said than done. How to let the children decide? This might work with adolescents, you might say. Letting children from the primary school do what they want is a different matter! But why not? If we want to shape their attitudes and make them more socially aware, once they reach their teenage years it will be too late. Active participation in the life of a community has to start as early as possible.

The idyllic village
Our idea was brought to life during an arts class. The students were to prepare some works on the topic: the village of my dreams. We then asked ourselves: why not put this into practice and give children a chance to change the surrounding areas? At first we, too, thought: this won’t work! But one crucial piece of advice came out of this: everything is possible. The first step toward achieving this goal is to get rid of the phrase “this won’t work” and start thinking differently.

We started our initiative by conducting a survey among the inhabitants. Children were talking to them, asking about the strengths and weaknesses of the municipality. They wanted to know what is good about the municipality and what the inhabitants would like to change. These surveys were to point to both good things and problems. For instance, the inhabitants thought that increased numbers of lorries in one of the villages were a problem so children went to verify this information by counting passing lorries on the road. Another issue was related to the lack of modern playgrounds and to the illegal garbage dumps.

The results of the survey were reported in the form of a multimedia presentation. The students decided to write a letter to the chair of the Town Council. They wanted to present their findings at the next Council meeting. The chair agreed to this initiative and a report was elaborated with the inhabitants’ assessment of the situation. The great engagement of our students contributed to the success of the meeting. Everyone was pleased with the outcome. The presentation received a round of applause and a joint photo of all the participants was taken. During project implementation we had a change to meet with the mayor twice. We were cordially received and the mayor was encouraged by the results of our work. He also expressed interest in our subsequent works.

As a result, new playgrounds were provided, some of the roads were rebuilt and plans for the construction of a bypass emerged. We were also able to get to know local government officials, as well as the way in which these authorities function and democracy is built. The students learned that the local inhabitants have a right to be heard and informed about the authorities’ decisions. The inhabitants’ rights include participation in the works of the Town Council, asking questions, organising rallies, submitting applications, petitions, etc. By means of such civic initiatives, the school teaches children how to be active, it educates them and makes them feel partially responsible for the reality they live in.

Advice for followers
It is worth telling children about the functioning of the local authorities, their tasks and competences beforehand. Also, children should know about the ways in which the inhabitants can influence official decisions.
Good planning is another matter that should be taken into account. Introducing changes does not necessarily require a lot of time. A lot more time is needed for preparing the change we want to implement.

Overview:
duration

The implementation of the project took 16 hours. Children from the fourth, fifth and sixth grade were involved.

cost (free, low-cost, investment)

free

parties responsible, who to involve (teacher, students, headmaster, parents, local government)

The history teacher was responsible for the project. Students took part in all project-related works.

Elżbieta Ryczek, Podmokłe Małe Education Centre